A Chandler man’s thriving business in black-market Vietnamese cigarettes went up in smoke when he was sentenced to eight months in prison by a federal judge.
Vien Tang and his ex-wife, Lien Tang, were accused by federal authorities of selling 8,000 cartons of illegally imported Vietnamese cigarettes in the parking lots of East Valley markets and restaurants that cater to Asian customers between 2014 and 2018, according to federal court documents.
The all-cash sales occurred outside popular and well-known Asian businesses in Mesa and Chandler such as Mekong Supermarket, Mekong Sandwiches and Lee’s Sandwiches, according to Vien Tang’s plea deal.
“The Tangs operated in a close community, in a specific part of the city, and to fellow immigrant individuals and businesses,’’ a federal sentencing recommendation said.
U.S. District Court Judge David G. Campbell earlier this month sentenced Vien Tang to eight months in federal prison, $275,000 in restitution and three years of probation for Unlawful Importation of Tobacco. He had previously pleaded guilty.
Lien Tang had previously pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months of probation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Rather than choosing gainful employment to help their immigrant family flourish in the United States, Vien Tang and his then-wife Lien Tang chose instead to finance their comfortable lifestyle through crime,’’ according to Vein Tang’s sentencing memorandum.
“Defendants V. Tang and L. Tang engaged in a multi-year smuggling operation to bulk import and sell Vietnamese brand cigarettes for cash,’’ the document said.
The court documents said that bulk shipments of Vietnamese cigarettes, concealed in boxed packages, were delivered to the couple’s Chandler home every week. Shipments typically contained 31 cartons.
The cigarettes were disguised in wrapping paper to appear as if they were gifts, the court document said.
“On a daily basis, defendant Tang would load his various vehicles with cartons of cigarettes and sell them directly to individuals in the parking lots of businesses,’’ the document said.
Prosecutors said that Lien Tang would handle the cigarette sales when her husband was on one of his regular trips to Vietnam. Federal authorities accused him of using those trips to make arrangements to smuggle cigarettes without paying taxes.
The scheme allowed the Tangs to evade more than $278,000 in state and federal excise taxes — the basis for Tang’s restitution.
Cliff Levenson, Tang’s defense attorney, said a police report revealed that federal authorities got onto the case when a package came open at the post office and someone noticed the Vietnamese cigarettes inside.
“I have every confidence that he (Vien Tang) will get the minimum’’ of prison time, by earning an early release through good behavior, Levenson said. “He’s a good man.’’
Levenson said Tang’s sentence was based upon prosecutors making a case that importing and selling Vietnamese cigarettes illegally was Vien Tang’s occupation.
“I was very impressed with his family support. That will serve him well,’’ Levenson said. “I have every confidence that he will do fine.’’
Krissa Lanham, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said, “The criminal activity was discovered through the U.S. Postal Service’s routine monitoring of the postal system. Our office is not aware of related cases outside our district.’’
But beyond the Tangs’ case, black-market cigarettes are a major issue nationally and around the world. In the U.S., much of it involves cigarettes being trucked from lower-tax, and tobacco-producing states, to higher tax states such as New York that have imposed stiff taxes to discourage smoking.
Klaus von Lampe, a German university professor, has researched the illegal trafficking and sales of cigarettes for years throughout the world.
“Cigarettes are among the highest taxed commodities and provide a significant source of revenue for governments. While the level of taxation varies across jurisdictions, in many countries taxes account for as much as 70 to 80 percent of the price smokers have to pay for a pack at a legal retail outlet store,’’ he wrote in a 2011 research paper.
“Through a number of different schemes, suppliers and customers circumvent the taxation of cigarettes. As a result, cigarettes are being made available at a cost below legal retail prices, providing both lucrative profits for suppliers and significant savings for consumers, while causing substantial losses of revenue to governments, estimated at around $40 billion USD globally in 2007, and at the same time undermining public health policies that aim to discourage smokers through high tobacco taxation,’’ von Lampe wrote.
In Australia, which has aggressively worked to reduce smoking, a staggering $40 price per pack appears to have stimulated a trade in Chinese black-market cigarettes that are not only much cheaper, but likely even more toxic and dangerous than conventional cigarettes.
Tests on counterfeit cigarettes from China have shown that each cigarette packs a highly unhealthful mix of up to 80 percent more nicotine and emits 130 percent more carbon monoxide, according to asbestos.com.
Some of these cigarettes have been found to contain such impurities as rat poison, traces of lead, dead flies, human and animal feces and asbestos, a known carcinogen linked to mesothelioma and other life-threatening respiratory diseases.
Smoking is still commonplace among men in Vietnam, according to the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Atlas. It says Vietnam’s male smoking rate is 38.7 percent, while only 0.9 percent of women smoke.
Ironically, Vietnam has tried to crack down on smuggling cigarettes for more than five years — with penalties far stiffer than what the Tangs received.
According to the Vietnam Investment Review, “The illicit cigarette trading typically violates health laws, reduces taxes to the state and damages sales of legitimate dealers.”
It said offenders who smuggle 1,500 to fewer than 4,500 packs of cigarettes will be subject to six months to three years in prison; from 4,500 to fewer than 13,500 packs, three to seven years, and from 13,500 packs or more, seven to 15 years.
Smuggled cigarettes were estimated to cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars, the newspaper said, adding, “What’s worse, almost all of smugglers trade in cash, which results in foreign currency drain out of the country.”
Smuggling also has cost tobacco farmers months of work, leaving farms stuck with as much as 17,000 tons of unprocessed tobacco leaves and consuming as much as 20 percent of the market share — about 800 million packs, the paper said.