June 18, 2006 — -- New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says the U.S. Postal Service has become "the delivery arm of a massive criminal enterprise."
Every day, Native American businesses ship millions of cigarettes from reservations across the country.
While Native Americans on the reservation are entitled to tax-free cigarettes, the Web sites that offer those tax-free cigarettes for sale off the reservation are, officials say, illegal.
The public health community says Web sites that illegally sell cheap smokes are a real concern -- especially when it comes to young smokers.
"The monetary incentive, from the state's perspective, is not what drives us," Spitzer says. "What drives us is the concern that kids will gain access to cigarettes online."
Studies confirm that children can easily buy cheap cigarettes online.
"I got Virginia Slims Light cigarettes, and I'm 14," said one teen who was working for law enforcement.
Spitzer, now running for governor of New York as a Democrat, is on a mission to shut down the sites. He's convinced private delivery services like FedEx, DHL and UPS to stop shipping cigarettes to individual consumers. But he can't convince the U.S. Postal Service.
"Somebody at the Postal Service," says Spitzer, "should be smart enough to say, 'Stop this. We don't need the money. It is illegal to deliver these goods. We shouldn't do it.' "
But Tom Boyle of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service says, "That's unfair to the Postal Service.
"We are not a private carrier," Boyle adds. "We are a government entity. … By law, we cannot just open packages. We have to get a federal search warrant."
Spitzer counters, "We're not saying to them they should be opening packages randomly. We're saying when there is a company whose sole line of business is to ship cigarettes, then you can say to the company, 'We don't think you should be delivering your product because we believe it may be contraband.' "
But deciding what's contraband or not, says the post office, is not their job.
"We're doing as much as we possibly can," Boyle says.
In the meantime, the two sides can't agree on how to solve what they both say is a problem. And so a branch of the federal government continues to deliver throughout the country what Spitzer says are millions of illegal cigarettes.