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Friday, December 8th, 2023

Senators urge Department of State action on tobacco smuggling over health, security concerns

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In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a group of five senators raised alarms over illicit trafficking of tobacco products, denouncing them as threats to public health and a significant source of revenue for transnational criminal organizations.

U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) called for action from the State Department to counter these smuggling operations. According to public reports cited by the group, Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) control most of the U.S. drug market and are responsible for trafficking tobacco as well.

“In 2015, the State Department cited activity by terrorist groups, and criminal networks who have used tobacco trafficking operations to finance other crimes, including ‘money laundering, bulk cash smuggling, and the trafficking in humans, weapons, drugs, antiquities, diamonds, and counterfeit goods,’” the senators wrote. They later added, “TCOs control most of the U.S. drug market, and are responsible for trafficking the illegal drugs, including marijuana, heroin and fentanyl, that drove the record number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2022.”

While efforts to counteract such smuggling have stretched back to at least 1978, under the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act (CCTA), the effects have been mixed. More recently, according to the senators, there has been no update on what the State Department and other relevant agencies have done in these areas since their 2015 report.

As a result, the senators asked for documentation of the department’s steps since then to counter illicit tobacco trafficking, and questioned if an assessment exists of domestic efforts to limit tobacco usage and any opportunities they provide for transnational criminal organizations. Building on this, they asked that the State Department detail the extent of its engagement with other organizations in creating safety standards for tobacco manufacturing, packaging and sales, its sharing of analyses of transnational criminal organizations, and its work with international partners and governments to limit tobacco smuggling.