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Counterfeit cigarettes burn legitimate makers

Phillip Morris asks states to track cigarettes, and Florida lawmakers have a plan in the works.

Associated Press
Published April 4, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Calls to a consumer complaint line tipped Philip Morris USA to a problem that's costing the cigarette giant and states around the nation millions of dollars while providing terrorists and organized crime groups an easy way to make money.

The red-and-white packs customers were buying looked like Marlboros, but actually were being made by counterfeiters who are profiting off one of the world's most recognizable trademarks.

Now Philip Morris is going state-to-state asking lawmakers to pass bills that allow law enforcement to better track sales with the hope of removing illicit cigarettes from the market.

Basically, the company is asking states to require anyone involved in cigarette sales, from the manufacturer to the corner store, to be licensed and document where the they received their product. Wholesalers would have to make sure cigarette packs have tax stamps.

California and 11 other states have already passed laws tracking sales, and there's legislation pending in another 15.

A U.S. General Accounting Office report on cigarette smuggling published last year said some people involved in the trade have ties to terrorist groups.

"There are indications that terrorist group involvement in illicit cigarette trafficking, as well as the relationship between criminal groups and terrorist groups, will grow in the future because of the large profits that can be made," the report said.

In Florida, Rep. Thad Altman and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, both Republicans from Melbourne, are sponsoring bills to try to stop counterfeit and contraband cigarettes. Each (SB 816 and HB 205) has one more committee stop before reaching the vote of their full chambers. The bills also make possession of counterfeit cigarettes a felony that carries up to five years in prison.

Haridopolos said there are many reasons to support his bill.

"This is a legitimate health risk - besides the fact you're smoking cigarettes - because you don't know what you're getting in the product," he said. "Second, it's untaxed and third, if we continue to allow this to happen, you're going to have these groups such as Hezbollah finding another source of revenue."

[Last modified April 4, 2005, 01:26:10]

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