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State bill aims to nip illegal smokes in butt

Photo by Joe Anuta
By Joe Anuta

City efforts to stamp out illegal cigarette sales are failing, says a northeast Queens lawmaker who last week proposed a new task force to rein in the problem.

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) introduced legislation that would create a nine-member body to tackle the contraband sales which would include the governor, the state attorney general and the heads of several state agencies or their appointees. But others in the political arena questioned the inclusion of a relatively unknown and largely inactive small business advocacy group based in Flushing.

“The sale of black market, untaxed cigarettes has resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the state, robbing state health care programs designed for children,” Avella said Friday at the corner of Union Street and 38th Avenue, in the heart of a neighborhood known for its illegal smokes.

Avella cited one set of statistics from 2011 that showed 60 percent of the cigarettes sold in New York were untaxed, while another set found one in two packs evaded the tax man that same year.

Within the five boroughs, the city Department of Finance’s Office of the Sheriff has taken the lead on extinguishing illegal smokes.

In 2011, the department created the Tobacco Task Force, which found contraband during nearly half of its inspections as of May 2013, according to Finance Commissioner David Frankel, who testified at a City Council hearing this spring in support of two bills.

One of the proposed laws would increase penalties for retailers who peddle black market smokes.

But Avella hopes his task force would focus on the source of the tobacco instead of targeting small business shop owners.

“For anybody to say we are already doing enough is absurd,” he said.

His efforts were championed by the Small Business Congress of New York City, with executive director Sung Soo Kim saying the illegal sales are only hurting honest shopkeepers who follow the law.

The Small Business Congress is the only non-governmental entity proposed for Avella’s task force, yet it has not been active in years, according to its founder. Although registered as a nonprofit, the organization has not filed any recent tax forms because it has had no income.

A list of the congress’ board of directors provided to TimesLedger Newspapers is from 2006, and lists Norman Teitler, whose towing and auto advocacy group is currently under investigation by the city Department of Consumer Affairs; lobbyist Richard Lipsky, who was jailed last year for his involvement in a bribery scheme; and a handful of others who no longer serve in their listed roles at small business groups.

According to Kim, members hope to restart their efforts to protect shop owners this year, but a spokesman for Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) wondered why Avella failed to reach out to his office or other groups, which he said have been active in the fight.

“I can’t speak for the senator, but if you really cared about the issue or really wanted to get things done, you would have brought in groups that are on the front lines with these issues,” said Koo Chief of Staff James McClelland. “I’m a little perplexed.”

Avella countered that the task force would provide a venue for cooperation between state agencies that otherwise might not communicate with each other and that the congress approached him with the idea for the bill, but he would be happy to reach out to other groups to partner with in the future.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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