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California and New York City sue U.S. Postal Service over cigarettes

Postal Service truck
The U.S. Postal Service should be forced to intercept and destroy cigarettes that are sent by mail, California and New York City argue in their lawsuit.
(Justin Lane / European Pressphoto Agency)

California and New York City sued the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday to stop tens of thousands of cigarette packages from being mailed from foreign countries to U.S. residents, saying the smugglers are engaging in tax evasion while postal workers look the other way.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Brooklyn, blames the Postal Service for deliveries from Vietnam, China, Israel and other countries, saying the failure to enforce a federal law aimed at banning cigarette mail deliveries costs California an average of $19 million a year in tax revenue and New York City and state more than $21 million each year.

The suit seeks a court order to force the Postal Service to intercept and destroy packages believed to contain cigarettes.

The Postal Service does not comment on active litigation, spokesman David Coleman said in an email.

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“Cigarette smuggling doesn’t just break the law — it endangers the health of countless Americans and enriches terrorists and organized crime,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. ”Yet despite all of this, our nation’s own postal service has ignored the practice and enabled one of the biggest killers in our country. It needs to end, and we intend to be the ones to end it.”

“Accepting and delivering contraband cigarettes is not only a health hazard for our citizens but a detriment to our state’s economy,” California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said.

Georgia M. Pestana, New York City’s acting corporation counsel, said the Postal Service has ignored its inspector general’s warning that it violates the law by, in some cases, returning illegal shipments to senders instead of destroying them.

”The Postal Service has turned a blind eye to the illegal shipment of cigarettes through its facilities, undermining our health laws and causing millions of dollars of tax losses to New York City,” Pestana said.

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The lawsuit said that smugglers capitalize on widely varying tax rates on cigarettes, and that the Postal Service ignores cigarette shipments sometimes labeled as “cigarettes” and fails to ban commercial cigarette shippers identified by the U.S. Justice Department.

Postal Service officials’ failure to enforce the 2010 Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking law ”thwarts each and every goal expressed by Congress in the statute,” including its desire to stop terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda from benefiting from large profits produced by cigarettes distributed through the mail, the lawsuit said.

Sales through the mail increased dramatically as internet use became widespread, the suit noted. Before the law’s passage, Congress was told internet vendors selling cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to U.S. buyers numbered about 40 in 2000, though it ballooned to more than 500 by 2005.

Authorities estimate as many as 6 million packs of cigarettes are delivered by mail each year to California and 5 million packs to New York City and state.

They estimate the quantity from audits conducted last year by investigators at the John F. Kennedy International Mail Facility in New York, the lawsuit said. The audit, it said, concluded that more than 100,000 cartons of cigarettes at the facility were destined for 48 states.


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