Cook County’s Department of Revenue was in the field this week with Philip Morris USA’s Brand Integrity Department’s canine unit. The company has partnered with Cook County and other law enforcement agencies to help combat illicit cigarette trafficking. Its dogs are trained to detect the odor of tobacco and to alert their handler where tobacco is concealed. With the aid of a tobacco sniffing hound, Cook County was able to conduct 71 investigations, issue 18 citations, and write citations for $86,100 in fines over the course of three days.
Phillip Morris’ Integrity Department canine program started in August 2012 with the introduction of Fillmore, a dog based in New York. Fillmore and his handler flew here to help Cook County focus on areas with a high number of habitual offenders along Devon Avenue, in Evanston, and Chinatown.
Cook County has been home to a burgeoning black market of fake and smuggled cigarettes without tax stamps. Counterfeit cigarettes pose a greater public health risk than traditional cigarettes, because in most cases they contain substances other than tobacco leaves. During Cook County’s investigation in Chinatown on December 12, 2013, half of the packs confiscated were imported counterfeits.
Since Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle took office, the County has nearly tripled its cigarette inspections, going from approximately 3,000 to 9,000. The increased number of inspections has resulted in nearly twice as many confiscations and the collection of more than $1.8 million in cigarette tax fines.
The Department of Revenue has used a combined strategy of field intelligence, anonymous tips, and cooperation with other law enforcement agencies. In 2014, the County plans to bring in $134.5 million in tobacco tax revenue.
As cigarette enforcement has increased, violators have become increasingly sophisticated about how they store and sell unstamped and counterfeit packs. While Cook County investigators are sure there are a higher number of counterfeit packs out on the street, they cannot readily identify them in all cases. With the assistance of Fillmore, Cook County investigators found illegal cigarettes hidden under floorboards, behind walls, and in back rooms.
During the three day special operation, Cook County confiscated 615 illegal packs of cigarettes and issued $86,100 in fines.