Cigarette smuggling in Maryland may be penalized, lawmakers say

Officials displayed a large amount of confiscated contraband cigarettes on Monday. (Photo: Mike Rudd/ABC7)

FORESTVILLE, Md. (AP/ABC7) - Maryland state Comptroller Peter Franchot wants to crack down on cigarette smuggling, and he and other law enforcement officials and activists are taking their demand to Annapolis.

Franchot, along with representatives from his field enforcement division and the Center for Tobacco Regulation, called for tougher penalties for cigarette smugglers on Monday.

The General Assembly is considering legislation to increase penalties for people caught smuggling cigarettes into Maryland. The House of Delegates passed the legislation in March by an overwhelming 115-12 vote margin, and a Senate committee recently considered the bill, but has not yet voted on the measure.

"The state is losing a substantial amount of much needed revenue as a result of cigarette smuggling," Franchot said. "Just as importantly, the minor penalties currently imposed for being caught smuggling do nothing to deter criminals from continuing to blatantly break the law."

Transportation of contraband cigarettes in Maryland is currently a felony, carrying a $50 per carton fine and/or two years in prison. Possession of untaxed cigarettes is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 and/or up to a year in prison.

Franchot and his allies want those penalties raised substantially. The new legislation could carry a $150 per carton fine on first offense and up to two years in prison for both crimes. The fine would go up to $300 per carton on subsequent offenses.

"Smuggling not only takes revenue out of state coffers, but also makes cigarettes easily accessible to young people," he said. "Penalties for this crime must be tougher in order to snuff out this public health and safety risk."

According to officials in the comptroller's office, more cigarettes have been confiscated in the last nine months than in the entire 2011 fiscal year. Franchot says that agents have confiscated $1.5 million in contraband cigarettes during that time period.

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