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    Philip Morris Sues 200 Retailers

    Cigarette maker has filed 55 lawsuits against retailers and distributors of counterfeit product.

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Top cigarette maker Philip Morris Co. has filed a lawsuit against 200 California retailers accusing the stores of selling counterfeit Marlboros.

    The New York-based tobacco manufacturer accused the San Joaquin Valley retailers of violating state and federal trademark laws in a civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento this week. The company is not seeking damages, but asks retailers to stop selling the counterfeit products, spokeswoman Jaime Drogin told the Associated Press. "Our first goal is to stop the activity and our second goal is to find out where the product is coming from," she said.

    Philip Morris has filed 55 lawsuits against more than 2,300 retailers, wholesalers and importers in federal courts nationwide. Most of the lawsuits have been on the West Coast, where Philip Morris has conducted undercover operations by buying cigarettes then testing the tobacco to determine whether the cigarette is authentic.

    Many of the counterfeit cigarettes are coming from China, Drogin said. The packaging, Marlboro Full Flavor in a red box and Marlboro Light in a gold box, looks authentic down to the counterfeit tax stamps, but the product inside isn't genuine, Drogin said.

    "Yeah, it's hard to tell," Sam Inthisane, manager of one of the Fresno, Calif. markets named in the lawsuit, told the Associated Press. "We're just buying them to sell them. We don't make them, so we can't tell."

    Inthisane said the store hasn't received any customer complaints about the cigarettes.

    Drogin advises retailers to beware of "special deals" like businesses closing and selling for half price. Federal agents in California are watching for such contraband.

    In August 2001, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) seized more than 4,000 cartons of cigarettes in San Diego smuggled from China. Authorities also confiscated nearly 61,000 cartons in San Jose brought in from other low-tax states and bearing counterfeit California stamps in July 2001.

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