EXCLUSIVE: Major illegal, counterfeit cigarette bust in Cook County

February 28, 2013 8:56:01 PM PST
A major black market bust of illegal cigarettes is fueling concern that the underground tobacco market will get even worse when the Cook County tax on a pack of cigarettes goes up by $1 Friday.

A truckload of smokes, all with seemingly-real tax stamps, are part of the avalanche of contraband cigarettes now flooding the sheriff's department evidence room.

What would a smoker be inhaling if they lit up a contraband cigarette?

"It's anyone's guess what's in these cigarettes," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.

Comparing a counterfeit and a real pack of Newport cigarettes, both have similar lettering and insignias but taxes were collected only on one.

"The big losers are people in the county because this is money that's in the budget, it's set aside for it, and it's not being collected," Dart said.

The increase in seizures comes as the Cook County cigarette tax goes up $1 per pack.

"This is a proven public policy tool that will bring in needed revenue to our public health system while lowering smoking rates and preventing people from picking up the deadly habit," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.

According to Dart, it could also lead to more illegal cigarettes. He said counterfeit Newports were shipped from China to O'Hare.

The unknown sender then had them mailed to a random address on the West Side and the residents were not involved.

"We sat out there, the postal service and ourselves, for about a day to see if someone would pick it up. And they were either on to us, or they had a bigger shipment going somewhere else," Dart said.

As for that truckload of smokes, they were seized Thursday from a convenience store after authorities discovered them in a storage area hidden behind a fake wall.

"They're making money because they're getting people to come and get these cigarettes at a discount, but the person at the original location who is packaging this and sending it along, they're making boatloads of money," Dart said.