Is Selling Untaxed Cigarettes Now A Capital Offense?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Cigarettes, the government warns, can kill you.

They certainly killed Eric Garner, the 43-year-old married father of six who died last week while he was being arrested for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes in New York.

Garner didn’t die of lung cancer or emphysema. He died during a struggle with at least five police officers as he protested repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe. If the video is accurate, the officers escalated the physical confrontation rather quickly. One appeared to put Garner in a chokehold.

Many see Garner’s death as an example of law enforcement gone wild. People are getting thrown in jail for letting their kids play outside unattended. Police are regularly in the news for shooting families’ dogs and occasionally doing even worse things to human beings.

Others retort that Garner was a 400-pound man with a rap sheet and health problems — including asthma — who wasn’t exactly cooperative.

While casting a skeptical eye on those who enforce the law, let’s not let the people who write the laws off the hook. The reason Garner was swarmed by police officers in the first place is that high taxes have led to a black market in cigarettes.

New York is now the highest net importer of smuggled cigarettes in the country, thanks to a $4.50 per pack tax. New York City adds an additional tax of $1.50.

Smuggling is up 59 percent since 2006 and now is believed to account for nearly 57 percent of New York’s cigarette market. A Mackinack Center study had the figure slightly higher. Last year, authorities seized $4.5 million in counterfeit Chinese cigarettes in Brooklyn. As early as 2010, New York was losing $20 million a month in revenues to black market smokes.

It’s spreading throughout the region. According to one study, nearly 40 percent of cigarettes smoked in Boston come from the black market. In Providence, that figure is somewhere between 30 to 55 percent. In Washington, D.C., it’s 30 to 60 percent.

Nearly 60 percent of discarded cigarettes found in five large Northeastern cities lacked the proper excise tax stamps.

A revenue-hungry nanny state in New York has boosted cigarette taxes nearly 200 percent in less than a decade, creating the crime for which Garner was killed. Have we learned nothing from Prohibition or the war on drugs?

“Alleged gun-running and terrorist-loving ex-Stuyvesant HS teacher Theo Burroughs, busted in a sting two months ago, was trafficking in untaxed cigarettes along with assault rifles and handcuffs,” the New York Post reported.

Hezbollah and the Irish Republican Army have gotten a piece of the action as terrorists, gangs and the mafia get involved in the cigarette black market.

The Post quoted a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms official as saying, “We see lots of [rip-offs] and violence with drug trafficking, and you will see a rise of that in tobacco, too. As volume and money go up, the stakes get higher. And certainly, a concern of ours is violence will spill out of this.”

Two paragraphs later, the story says “state officials maintain the tax is worth it as an incentive for people to quit.” Quit breathing?

Yes, smoking is bad for you. So is organized crime. Or getting slammed to the ground by a half a dozen men with guns.

A man who is killed by government overreach, fueled by anti-tobacco fanaticism, is just as dead as one who smokes a carton of unfiltered Pall Malls every week for thirty years. And his children are just as fatherless.

Cigarettes are medically dangerous, but they are also a legal product that adults want and will use for nonviolent purposes. Sending the people who want cigarettes into the arms of criminal gangs — or sending virtual SWAT teams after 400-pound men suspected of selling loosies on a street corner — creates violence.

“Smoking is healthier than fascism,” though mildly amusing, long sounded like an overwrought libertarian slogan. Watching Eric Garner’s final moments makes it seem a good deal less so.

At the very least, some do-gooder policies should carry a surgeon general’s warning of their own: Unintended consequences may be hazardous to your health.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter