Joe Fox served as the chief of the Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Branch and the subject matter expert on tobacco diversion for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Tobacco smuggling, which helps fund terrorist activities by al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Islamic State, is wreaking criminal havoc in Virginia, the United States and the world, and it’s time to do something about it.
In drawing the link between illicit tobacco smuggling and terrorist financing, a 2015 report by the State Department and four other agencies said that a former al-Qaeda operative and Islamic Maghreb senior commander “is known as ‘Mr. Marlboro’ because of his involvement in cigarette smuggling as a means to raise funds for his terrorist organization.”
The smuggling problem is particularly acute in Virginia because the state’s low excise tax allows criminals to legally buy cigarettes, then smuggle them to high-tax states and resell them on the black market for huge profits that fund criminal enterprises. A 2012 report by the Virginia State Crime Commission noted that “Illegally trafficked cigarettes now have a higher profit margin than cocaine, heroin, marijuana or guns.”
A Frederick County, Va., man recently was sentenced to 2 ½ years in federal prison and fined $14.3 million for his role in a cigarette-smuggling ring that cost states $40.2 million in lost tax revenue. A year ago, police in Henrico County busted 43 people in what they said was a $30 million cigarette smuggling ring.
The 2013 “Tobacco Road” case illustrated the complex international dimension. Basel Ramadan and 15 co-conspirators — all with close ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, and one a supporter of Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack in New York — were arrested in Virginia and New York and charged with more than 200 counts of corruption, money laundering and tax crimes. Their ring smuggled about 20,000 cartons of cigarettes a week from Virginia to New York, pocketing at least $10 million in illegal profits. New York lost an estimated $80 million in sales-tax proceeds, and the group sent several million dollars overseas, though it was never disclosed to whom.
For nearly two decades, I dedicated my life to chasing down and eradicating the illegal tobacco trade for the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, commonly known as ATF. During my tenure as chief of ATF’s Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Unit, federal agents were involved in illicit tobacco seizures worth approximately $50 million a year, and our targets evaded federal law enforcement with creative schemes to finance their activities. This alarming threat has only increased with recent budget cuts to law enforcement and investigative resources within the bureau.
The smuggling problem is pervasive. As many as one-fifth of all cigarettes purchased in the United States annually — about 3 billion packs — are sold illegally. Nationwide, these illicit sales result in $3 billion to $7 billion a year in lost tax revenue to states and localities.
But this is not just a domestic problem. Globally, nations lose $40 billion to $50 billion a year in revenue to the illicit tobacco trade, and that money funds terrorists, transnational criminals and the nuclear-armed regime of North Korea. As Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in a hearing on international tobacco smuggling last year, “Ongoing illicit trade helps fund terrorist activities, it fosters corruption, and it undermines the rule of law.”
The U.S. government is taking a heightened interest in these black-market sales. The 2015 federal agency report points out that when illicit tobacco trafficking “converges with other criminal activities it undermines the rule of law and licit market economy, and creates greater insecurity and instability in many of today’s security ‘hot spots’ around the world.”
Similarly, smuggling can wreck a country’s ability to control the supply and price of tobacco, which is critical to any country’s strategy to curb tobacco consumption. A 2009 report found that “if the global illicit trade [in cigarettes] were eliminated, governments would gain at least $31 billion, and from 2030 onward, would save over 160,000 lives a year.”
It’s time for Congress to focus on this problem. And given Virginia’s relationship with tobacco farmers and manufacturers and the state’s experiences with tobacco smuggling, Virginia’s lawmakers should take the lead.
Legislation with teeth needs to be enacted to combat tobacco smuggling on an international scale, similar to the war we are waging against narcotics. The United States should adopt the same sort of tactics we use to fight the corruption, fraud and funding of international terrorism. Congress should produce an annual report on international tobacco smuggling, and we should sanction bad actors by cutting off their access to the international financial system.
Tobacco smuggling hits legitimate tax revenue, funds terrorism and organized crime, fuels instability and ultimately threatens U.S. national security. We cannot afford to be spectators in the fight against the illicit tobacco trade any longer.