I’ve written here many, many times about the problem of tobacco piracy and how it’s entirely driven by out of control sin taxes applied unevenly across the states. So entrenched is this problem that it’s become something of a way of life in states like New York, Illinois and Connecticut. But there was a case in Missouri this month which may just take the cake in terms of not only how widespread the problem has become, but how incredibly stupid some people act when attempting to profit off of this illicit trade. It took place in the small town of Foristell, just to the west of St. Louis. (St. Louis Today)
Police in the tiny town of Foristell, responding about 2 a.m. Thursday to a report of marijuana smoke coming from a motel room, arrested two women from New York who tried to escape by jumping out a second-story window and running half-naked across Interstate 70.
Then things got weird.
Back in the motel room, police didn’t recover the alleged pot, but they found a different kind of smoking material: about 160 cartons of cigarettes.
The women admitted they had driven around the St. Louis area in a rented car buying them up, with plans to sell them back in New York.
The number of things which were hilariously wrong about this story make it too good to pass up. First of all, these women were going around the city and buying up cartons of smokes at the vastly lower price than is charged in New York. So far, so good. But they were using a relatively small car to transfer their loot. 160 cartons may seem like a lot, but they were spending around fifty dollars per carton for them. You can’t sell them on the black market anywhere near market value so they might have been able to make roughly twenty bucks a carton profit. Split between two people that’s roughly $1,500 dollars each. Now subtract out the cost for gas, meals and several nights in hotels and these ladies probably weren’t going to clear even a thousand dollars profit for their trip. Professional smugglers get larger vehicles which they outfit with secret compartments capable of carrying ten times that many cartons.
It’s more of a side note, but jumping out the window and fleeing half naked on foot from the cops while abandoning your car in the motel parking lot isn’t exactly a plan of criminal mastermind proportions either. Where did they think they were going to flee to?
But the real icing on the cake comes with the final discovery which the police made. The women had a pile of roughly two dozen fake credit cards which they were using to purchase all the cartons. Two immediate problems arise here. First of all, you’ve now taken the seriousness of your crime up from peddling improperly taxed smokes up to a whole new level of fraud which will land you some felony charges. But what’s even worse than that is the following question: if you were going to use fake credit cards anyway, why did you drive all the way to St. Louis? You weren’t going to wind up paying for the cigarettes anyway, so why not just buy them at full price back home in New York and then sell them on the black market for half? It was all profit anyway!
Leaving aside the stupidity of this particular pair of thieves for the time being, the article still reminds us of the serious nature of this problem. These women, as mentally dense as they might be, are only two of countless people who find the temptation of making a quick dollar smuggling cigarettes too great to avoid. And for the states such as New York who have implemented these outrageous sin taxes, the plan rarely pays off anyway. In at least one year, New York City actually managed to lose money on their tobacco tax scheme.
Further, even if they do manage to bring in a decent amount of revenue they wind up spending it on increased law enforcement resources to keep tabs on all the piracy. More people are being arrested and processed over idiotic, low level crimes as well as the few major smugglers they manage to find. It spurs small shops to run the risk of selling bootleg smokes and petty criminals wind up in conflict with the law over selling “singles” as they are known on the streets. I still maintain that Eric Garner might be alive today if he hadn’t been doing that. And don’t the cops have better things to do than police cigarette sales?
Either way, it’s time for a fresh look at sin taxes. They simply don’t work and wind up causing more harm than good. And the state using the excuse of wanting to cut down on smoking has been proven to be false. It’s a ham handed attempt at a major cash grab by too many state governments and it’s generally their poorest citizens who wind up paying the price for it.