Altria's Fight Against Tobacco Trafficking Has Four-Legged
Secret Weapons
​Max and Filmore aren’t your average crime fighters.​
These furry, four-legged investigators are able to sniff out concealed tobacco in the battle against criminals dodging taxes and cheating law-abiding retailers.
Max, a three-year-old yellow lab and Golden Retriever mix based in Richmond, VA and Filmore, a three-year-old yellow lab based in New York City, are part of Altria’s Brand & Trade Channel Integrity Department (BTCI). The department, along with Max and his handler Jerry*, and Filmore and his handler Jim*, are an important part of the BTCI team that helps local, state and federal law enforcement officials with hundreds of investigations annually. The goal is to make sure criminals don't take sales from legitimate businesses that sell tobacco products legally and responsibly.
Hidden Doors are No Match for Highly Trained Canines
 
 
​​“Max’s first bust in the spring of 2014 involved surprise inspections at Chicago convenience stores with the Cook County Department of Revenue,” said Jerry, who worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections for more than 30 years, running bloodhounds and narcotics dogs.
​​As a nervous store clerk watched, Max quickly sniffed around displays in the small store. Max then sat down, turned his head and “locked up" to indicate concealed tobacco along a wall of souvenir T-shirts.
​“The cigarette smell was literally coming from behind the wall, and we couldn’t get the wall to move,” said Jerry. “Just as investigators were about to use a crowbar to pry open the wall, the store clerk pulled out a small push-button key fob and said he would open the space.”
“The clerk pushed the button, and it immediately released two hidden electronic magnets connected to a 12-volt battery behind the wall,” added Jerry. “There were 126 packs of illegal untaxed cigarettes inside the hinged-door cabinet.”
​Bart McEntire, Senior Manager Anti-Illicit Trade at Altria Client Services, said, “We’ve seen tobacco hidden in some unusual areas. These traffickers are pretty ingenious at hiding illicit tobacco in secret drawers, floorboards and public storage units. Thanks to our tobacco-sniffing dogs and their handlers, we can help local law enforcement agencies combat this activity.”​
 
Max’s nose is about 250,000 to 500,0​00
times more powerful than a human and he is specially trained to detect the odor of tobacco.”

 

Why Combating Illicit Tobacco Trade is so Important​

  • When tobacco products, like cigarettes, move outs​ide of the legitimate distribution chain, law-abiding businesses lose revenue and adult consumers lose out on quality. States and localities lose taxes and experience higher levels of crime.​

  •  

  • The money made from the illicit trade of tobacco products has funded other forms of crime.

  •  

  • Contraband tobacco products, including counterfeit products and diverted genuine products harm trademarks owned by Altria’s tobacco companies. These illegal activities also undermine the legitimate trade channels through which tobacco products are distributed and sold and in which Altria has made significant investments.​

 

Combating Illicit Trade

Illicit trade undermines the investments Altria’s tobacco companies make in their brands and in the trade channels where they sell their products. Learn more about Altria's efforts to combat illicit trade.​

A Powerful Sense of Smell

 
​​
Jerry notes that despite criminals’ efforts to hide untaxed or contraband tobacco or mask its distinctive smell with coffee, mothballs or even dryer sheets​, a highly trained canine is no match.
“Max’s nose is about 250,000 to 500,000 times more powerful than a human,” added Jerry. Dogs like Max or Filmore are able break apart smells. For example, when a human just smells spaghetti cooking, a dog smells the individual ingredients: tomatoes, oregano, onions and peppers.
Filmore’s sniffing skills are equally impressive.
His handler Jim said, “We recently were working in a Queens neighborhood. Filmore sniffed around a garage door, and he sat down to alert me. The local investigators secured a search warrant and some 75 feet away, hidden in the back of the garage, were 800 cartons of untaxed cigarettes.
​“When we opened the garage door, the smell of mold and mildew was so strong that it took a while for us to enter,” said Jim. “Everyone, including me, was impressed that Filmore could smell those cigarettes over the mold and mildew from so far away.”
 

Ray Rowley, Manager Law Enforcement Engagement at Altria Client Services, added, “Our tobacco-detection dogs are unique tools to combat traffickers who are working to get cigarettes from low-tax states, like Virginia, to high-tax locations like New York City and Chicago. The only thing the criminals selling counterfeit or diverted cigarettes care about is the color green.
 
“The only thing the criminals selling counterfeit or diverted
cigarettes care about is the color green.”​
 
“It is not uncommon for cigarette traffickers to stage cigarettes in storage facilities. It can take smugglers several days to purchase enough cigarettes in a low-tax state to then bundle and transport them to a high-tax state like New York or New Jersey. Philip Morris USA, one of Altria's companies, makes this more difficult by contracting with retailers to institute programs that limit sales to an individual consumer to five cartons in a single transaction.”
​​
​​​​By the Numbers​
  • Since 2012, BTCI has trained more than 7,400 law enforcement officers to raise greater awareness of the illicit tobacco trade.​

  • The department’s efforts - including its tobacco-sniffing dog program – led to 70 arrests in 2013 and 79 in 2014.

  • BTCI deployed our tobacco-sniffing dogs on more than 500 inspections since July 2014, resulting in the recovery of more than 25,000 packs of cigarettes.

  • We recently welcomed a third dog, Burley, and his handler Garry to the team to assist law enforcement in Chicago and the Midwest​.​


Training & Collaboration with Law Enforcement Agencies
 
Ray previously worked 30 years in law enforcement, including 24 years with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Since joining Altria’s BTCI department in 2011, Ray and his colleagues have trained more than 7,400 law enforcement officers on illicit tobacco issues nationwide. Training frequently includes demonstrations of the canine program.
“Max or Filmore smell the tobacco odor, but it’s our handlers who ensure the dogs’ detection skills are used in meaningful and appropriate ways,”​ said Ray.
 
That’s exactly what Jerry and Max did in the summer of 2014 when they helped detect 1,050 cartons of contraband cigarettes in Los Angeles. A storekeeper who was not licensed to sell tobacco in California was storing illicit cigarettes in a van just outside the store and in a nearby storage unit.
 
“Not every day is quite that exciting,” said Jerry. “We do a lot of sniffing for local law enforcement agencies at storage units in Virginia and along the I-95 corridor. Storage units are on private property, so the local agencies secure permission for us to walk the exteriors of the storage units.”​
 
“A canine sniff is not a search. Once Max makes a hit and detects an odor, the local law enforcement agents will do more investigating to determine if they should get a search warrant. Sometimes the local police turn the cases over to federal officials.​”
Jim and Filmore started their work with Altria’s BTCI group in August 2012 and were followed by Jerry and Max in April 2014. One week, the crime-fighting duos might be working together at an international shipping depot. The next week, Filmore might be doing retail inspections in New York City, and Max might be working with police in Northern Virginia.​
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“Max has a service dog permit. When we fly, he sits next to me in the cabin. He usually just chills out and sleeps on the plane. He also lives with me and my bloodhound,” said Jerry.
 
 *Given the nature of their work, the last names for the handlers are not included.​


 

 
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