We’ve already had a number of analysis pieces on the Eric Garner grand jury decision here, and frankly I don’t have a lot of differing thoughts to add to what Noah, Ed and Allah have already said. But there is a second story beneath the headlines which deserves another look. Why were the police engaging with Garner in the first place? Many of our commenters have brought this up in the aforementioned threads and it’s a valid question to ask. Eric Garner was alleged to have been engaged in selling “loosies” on the street, a slang term for the practice of selling individual cigarettes at a profit without collecting even more taxes on them.
Not too long ago, a “crime” like this would have seemed laughable. Even among the most heavily addicted, hard core smokers, who is going to pay a premium for one Marlboro when they could just stop by a convenience store and buy a pack? That was probably true when you could get a carton of ten packs for $45. But today, in New York City, you will pay up to $15 per pack for name brand smokes thanks to the massive piles of taxes which the Empire State and the Big Apple have piled on. For the low income city dweller, that may be too big of a chunk out of their budget. The crime Garner was suspected of is just one small example of what has come to be known as The New Tobacco Road.
A wave of crime, robbing states of needed revenues, disrupting legitimate businesses, and nurturing a culture of corruption has taken hold along the Interstate 95 corridor up and down the east coast, making it The New Tobacco Road.
Today, more than 60 percent of cigarettes in New York state are illegal, smuggled into the state by a growing web of criminal groups. In states along the I-95 corridor, criminals are seizing the opportunity to make massive profits from a legal, easily transportable product.
Left unchecked, those growing illegal operations will solidify into a corrosive mixture of crime, corruption and circumvention of the nation’s tobacco-control laws, putting at risk efforts to keep tobacco out of the hands of young people, disrupting legal commerce and putting honest small businesses at a disadvantage.
What was once a minor problem of individuals seeking to avoid taxes has turned into a professional criminal enterprise. Cigarettes are the new currency of crime, fueling illegal and violent activity. The flow of illicit tobacco goods along the New Tobacco Road has become a torrent, and the threat to public safety becomes more evident, more significant and more costly every day.
The volume of the problem has been swelling exponentially. The latest estimates show that $5.5 billion dollars in potential revenue have been lost to cigarette smuggling at various levels. That’s a lot of money no matter how you measure it. And it’s going into the pockets of criminals rather than into fixing the potholes on your street because the states have gotten greedy beyond all reason in trying to extort sin taxes from the populace.
But, as the sad case of Eric Garner demonstrates, it’s also affecting society in other ways. Police are spending their time and resources chasing people like Garner, as well as major tobacco pirates moving truckloads of smokes from lower tax rate states, rather than focusing on the actual crime out there. We’re creating a new class of criminals for no reason at all, and everyone is paying the price for it.
Food for thought, at a minimum.