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TALLAHASSEE -- Florida regulators and police have formed a new bond with the tobacco industry, against a common enemy of contraband cigarettes, reported Florida Today, a Melbourne, Fla. newspaper. Cigarette manufacturers like Philip Morris are working with a special police squad called the "Tomcats" who prowl Florida's shipping ports for containers of illegal cigarettes, providing everything from tips from their private agents to resources the budget-strapped agencies can't afford, the report stated.
The manufacturers have held training sessions for police on spotting counterfeit cigarette packs -- including a daylong symposium sponsored by Philip Morris last week in West Palm Beach, Fla., according to Florida Today.
"It is a huge problem," said Jack Tuter, director of Florida's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. After a lull in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, when resources were diverted to homeland security, the division is now increasing its own enforcement, Tuter said.
Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds have also hired their own undercover tobacco police, and Philip Morris sends agents into retail stores to buy packs of the company's cigarettes, the report stated. Shipped back to the company's forensics staff in Virginia, the cigarette packs are checked for authenticity, and if counterfeits are found, Philip Morris not only notifies regulators, but also launches its own civil prosecution in court, according to the report.
Sampling most heavily in California, the company last year checked more than 40,000 stores and filed lawsuits against more than 2,700 retailers, said John Holleran, senior vice president for compliance and brand integrity at Philip Morris, reported Florida Today. Only four such suits were filed in Florida, all in the Miami area.
According to the report, the aim isn't to put retailers behind bars so much as to persuade them to cough up information on a contraband cigarette network that is bedeviling both law enforcement and the tobacco industry.
The bigger problem in Florida is as a conduit for contraband cigarettes headed to the Midwest, the report stated. Tuter said state investigators even have found instances where organized crime rings have traded drugs for contraband cigarettes, finding the tobacco much easier and lucrative to traffic, according to Florida Today,
Tuter acknowledged Philip Morris' help, from testing suspect cigarettes at the company's "brand intelligence" unit to providing large quantities of product that investigators need to go undercover. He said the tobacco companies even have hired former federal agents, who befriend customs agents and troll for tips about suspicious cargo coming into Florida ports, according to the report.