Illicit tobacco fight’s weak link
Just off the main drag of the St. Regis Mohawk Indian reservation hugging the Canadian border, a woman greeted visitors at Another Dam Cigarette Store, one of several tax-free smoke shops on the territory.
She smiled at late-July shoppers paying for gasoline that was 21 cents cheaper per gallon compared to prices in nearby Malone, and offered a free T-shirt or tote bag bearing the logo of a cigarette called Braves to anyone buying a carton at the common reservation price of $23 — less than a third of the price of off-reservation national brand names. She pointed to samples, and invited smokers to light up on the spot.
Braves, one of many native-made labels produced on the reservation, are rolled in a blue windowless building near a racing car auto parts shop. It’s not far from the St. Lawrence River and about 100 feet from the Canadian border, with no customs house or border checkpoint to pass. The plant is one of the bigger Mohawk factories that is not federally licensed. It is on the radar of investigators concerned about illegal trafficking of cigarettes off the reservation.
The plant’s operator, and many others tribal entrepreneurs who produce cigarettes by the box or packaged in unmarked baggies known as “rollies,” could eventually be collared by law enforcement. But such outfits can operate unmolested for years while making substantial profits and making low-cost smokes available in cities throughout the Northeast.
They run in a low-risk, high-reward business that federal authorities say costs New York hundreds of millions of dollars a year in uncollected taxes; nationwide, the cost runs into billions.