Millions Lost in Cigarette Tax Evaders: Preckwinkle

Cook County is missing out on millions in tax revenue due to merchants selling smokes without the proper tax stamp, officials said Friday in announcing a crackdown on the practice.

In just the first week, investigators reported writing 71 citations, confiscating roughly 1,200 packs of cigarettes and assessing $166,000 in fines.

"In these difficult economic times, government has to do more with less, so this revenue is critical," said Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle.

Cigarettes are the most widely-smuggled legal product in the world, and Cook County has seen a dramatic loss in cigarette tax revenue, down $74 million from last year. While the economy and the smoking ban in bars and restaurants may play a role, county officials believe much if that loss is due to cigarette smuggling.

"The retailers are pocketing the money rather than remitting it back to the county," explained Preckwinkle.

Sheriff Tom Dart said many of the cigarettes come from states with low taxes, such as Missouri. The Show Me State charges only 17 cents per pack versus Cook County's $2.

"They literally can purchase, and have purchased, a new Ford Explorer in Missouri, and by just filling that up with cigarettes, coming here and not paying the sales tax, they've been able to pay off their Ford Explorer in four trips," Dart alleged.

To help with its efforts, the county has increased the number of investigative teams from two to five and has begun offering $1,000 rewards to those who snitch on a retailer that's selling cigarettes illegally.

Those with tips should call 312-603-6870, extension 3.

"With this collaboration, we feel pretty confident there will be a great deal of revenue that will be coming in in short order," said Dart.

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