The extraordinary profits that can be made in trafficking illegal cigarettes have led to brazen attempts to steal them. Consider the following three examples.

  • In October 2002, almost $10,000 worth of cigarettes and other tobacco products was stolen from a cage on the floor of a Sam's Club in Port Huron during store hours by an unknown number of thieves (though one witness reports the possibility of two or three). The cage itself was locked, but the cigarettes were accessed by cutting through the fence. In order to exit the store without getting caught, the thieves cut open a large box in another aisle that contained a recliner, removed the recliner, placed the cigarettes inside, and took the box to a Sam's Club cashier, who scanned the "recliner" label and completed the transaction.[130] Adding to the drama is that a Sam's Club employee unwittingly helped the thieves escort the box to the truck that carried away the stolen cigarettes. According to the store manager, cigarettes had been stolen in a similar manner at two other stores.[131]

An audit of the cage contents indicated that the thieves made off with everything from more than 180 cartons of cigarettes to wintergreen-flavored Skoal chewing tobacco and a single carton of Zig Zag papers.[132]

The tobacco cage at Sam's Club in Port Huron is now kept in safe sight of store cashiers and other employees, as is evident from this photo.

Graphic 18: Caged Cigarette Area at Port Huron Sam's Club

Graphic 18: Caged Cigarette Area at Port Huron Sam's Club - click to enlarge

Source: Mackinac Center for Public Policy

  • Also in October 2002, according to the Detroit Free Press, police got wind of a planned break-in at a tobacco shop in Macomb Township. For six hours, officers watched four men equipped with a police scanner and two-way radios carefully disable the store's security system and enter the business. Ignoring the cash, the men reportedly loaded $65,000 worth of tobacco products into a truck before being apprehended by police.[133]
  • ,
  • On Aug. 12, 2003, the owner of a convenience store in Dearborn found himself the victim of such an attack. At 5:00 in the morning, a man walked into the store and told the owner that he was armed and would kill him if he did not cooperate. The robber pulled out a garbage bag, stuffed cartons of cigarettes into it and fled in a pick-up truck. Police later caught up with the man, who attempted to run them down with his truck. Police responded by firing shots and then pursuing and ultimately killing him.[134]

Retail theft is not the only concern that law enforcement officials and businesspeople have. Wholesalers are often targets too. In October 2004, for instance, a semi-trailer of cigarettes was hijacked in Washtenaw County. The driver of the trailer was blindfolded and pistol-whipped during the ordeal but survived.[135] Arrests were made in this case in 2008.[136]

Martin & Snyder Product Sales, the only remaining cigarette wholesaler in the city of Detroit, has on more than one occasion been robbed by thieves who spent a night with a sledge hammer breaking through the brick wall of the company's warehouse (see Graphic 19). The wall in question is also surrounded by a high perimeter fence and is well-lit, according to George Daiza, co-owner of the company.

Graphic 19: The Repaired Warehouse Wall of Martin & Snyder Product Sales in Detroit

Graphic 19: The Repaired Warehouse Wall of Martin & Snyder Product Sales in Detroit - click to enlarge

Source: Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Daiza began working for the company in the early 1980s.[137] He says that while the wholesaler has long faced troubles associated with local criminal activity, it was not until 1994, when cigarette taxes jumped from 25 cents per pack to 75 cents per pack, that the expense and danger surrounding his work as a tobacco wholesaler escalated dramatically.[138]

According to Daiza, in 2005 two of M&S's trucks on separate occasions were hijacked in the Detroit metropolitan area, and the drivers were held at gunpoint and then left tied up. The regular drivers approached Daiza and the other owners and expressed their fear of working in an environment in which the cargo they hauled might lead to injury or death. Martin & Snyder responded by hiring the Threat Management Group, a security team that protected wholesaler's drivers and cargo.[139]

Consider Daiza's description of the lengths M&S and TMG went to in order to ensure the safety of M&S employees and property.[140] Before deliveries were dispatched, as many as 12 armed security guards — and sometimes a trained dog — maintained a clear and obvious presence by milling around in the M&S parking lot. The purpose was to send a message to anyone reconnoitering the compound and its delivery traffic. Up to six Martin & Snyder trucks are sometimes sent out at once, including an empty decoy truck with a single driver.[141]

The other trucks with real shipments carried armed TMG guards and were followed by a TMG vehicle with an armed guard and a camera that would broadcast live video over the Internet for Martin & Snyder owners to watch from the confines of their office.[142]

Once the convoy reached a certain point in the city, each of the trucks broke in different directions and drove to their destinations, which could include deliveries as far north as Saginaw and as far south as Ohio. Moreover, delivery schedules were changed frequently, so that would-be hijackers would never catch the trucks on a fixed schedule.[143]

[130] St. Clair County Sheriff's Office Complaint. Incident number 02-31758; File Class 3000-2; Port Huron Twp. 10-05-02.

[131] Ibid., 3.

[132] Ibid., 7-8.

[133] Mary Owen, "Tobacco Thieves Are Caught in the Act," Detroit Free Press, October 23, 2002.

[134] Niraj Warikoo, "Dearborn Cop Kills Robbery Suspect," Detroit Free Press, August 13, 2003, 2B.

[135] Michael LaFaive, "Smoke and Terrors," Mackinac Center for Public Policy,, accessed November 23, 2008.

[136] Susan E. Gillooly, Assistant United States Attorney, USAO-Eastern District of Michigan, telephone interview with Michael LaFaive, November 25, 2008.

[137] George Daiza, co-owner of Martin & Snyder Products Sales, interview by author Michael LaFaive, February 12, 2008.

[138] Ibid.

[139] Ibid.

[140] Ibid.

[141] Ibid.

[142] Ibid.

[143] Ibid.