NEW YORK (AP) — 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 in Brooklyn federal court 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 annually in tax
revenues and New York City and state over $21 million each year.

The lawsuit 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.

“Cigarette
smuggling doesn’t just break the law — it endangers the health of
countless Americans and enriches terrorists and organized crime,” Mayor
Bill de Blasio said in a news release. “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 Attorney General 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.

The
lawsuit said smugglers capitalize on widely varying tax rates on
cigarettes, while 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-Qaida from benefiting from large profits produced by cigarettes
distributed through the mail, the lawsuit said.

It noted that
sales through the mail increased dramatically with the internet. Prior
to the law’s passage, Congress was told internet vendors selling
cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to U.S. buyers numbered about 40 in
2000, through it ballooned to over 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, the lawsuit said. The audit, it added, concluded that more than 100,000 cartons of cigarettes at the facility were destined for 48 states.

By Larry Neumeister

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