Organized crime has found a new way to make a big profit: by illegally transporting cigarettes into New Jersey and other Northeast states.

 

Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Cigarettes are being bought in huge quantities in states like Virginia, where the tobacco tax is very low, and then shipped up the I-95 corridor to New Jersey and New York where taxes are very high, and resold illegally.

"Smuggled cigarettes have become the new currency of organized crime, and a lot of these criminal organizations are finding that it's more profitable than illegal narcotics," said Rich Marianos, the retired Assistant Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He said nationwide, states are losing more than $5.5 billion in tax revenues.

"That means states like New Jersey are being robbed of taxes that could go to law enforcement, schools, emergency services, vital things that we use every day as taxpayers," Marianos said.

He stressed black market tobacco smuggling has become "a high-profit, low-risk criminal enterprise. Compared to drug offenses where there's a mandatory minimum sentence, there's no penalties out there for the cigarette trafficker."

So where are these cigarettes being sold?

"They're being sold in the bodegas, in the convenience stores, they're being sold on the street, they're being sold in the housing projects," Marianos said, "by street gangs like the Latin Kings, terrorist organizations, the Russian Mafia."

Marianos has helped develop a website, thenewtobaccoroad.com, to disseminate information about the problem. He said we need to push our legislators to toughen penalties and to bring more support for law enforcement to crack down on tobacco smuggling.