Bootleg cigarettes, Prohibition and the death of Eric Garner

Eric Garner, asphyxiated during his arrest on Staten Island, had been repeatedly picked up by the NYPD for the crime of selling loose cigarettes. Washington Examiner:

The crime of selling “loosies” was not considered a serious one in the past. Many corner stores in New York City once sold them quietly upon request. But former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s cartoonish anti-tobacco crusade changed that and everything else. Smoking in public places was banned. Punitive taxes and a legal minimum price of $10.50 were imposed in an effort to push prices ever-upward, so that a brand-name pack of 20 cigarettes now costs as much as $14 in New York City.

As a result, the illicit sale of loose and untaxed cigarettes became more commonplace.

I noted at yesterday’s Repeal Day panel at Cato that according to figures last year, New York’s unusually high cigarette taxes had brought it an unusual distinction: an estimated 60 percent of consumption there is of smuggled or illegal cigarettes, much higher than any other state. Another way to think of it is that New York has moved closer to prohibition than to a legal market in tobacco. [earlier 2003 Cato study]

In his history of Prohibition, Last Call, Daniel Okrent cites (among many other law enforcement misadventures) the fatal shooting of Jacob Hanson, secretary of an Elks lodge in Niagara Falls, New York, in a confrontation with alcohol agents — though Hanson had a clean record and was not carrying alcohol. At the time, many saw Hanson’s death as reflecting poorly on the Prohibition regime generally. For some reason, though, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has drawn fire from some quarters for making a parallel observation about Garner’s death. [BBC; note however that while Garner’s frictions with the local NYPD seem to owe much to his repeated cigarette arrests, the proximate event leading to his arrest seems to have been his attempt to break up a fight]

Yale’s Stephen Carter: “On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce.” [Bloomberg View via Ilya Somin]


  • Tobacco Taxation and Unintended Consequences: U.S. Senate Hearing on Tobacco Taxes Owed, Avoided, and Evaded

    Drenkard Statement to U.S. Senate Finance Committee July 2014

    Hearing on Tobacco: Taxes Owed, Avoided, and Evaded
    Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance

    Chairman Wyden, Ranking Member Hatch, and members of the Committee:

    I appreciate the opportunity to submit this statement on tobacco taxes and their impact across the country. In the 77 years since our founding in 1937, the Tax Foundation has monitored tax policy trends at the federal and state levels, and our data and research are heavily relied upon by policymakers, the media, and the general public. Our analysis is guided by the idea that taxes should be as simple, neutral, transparent, and stable as possible, and as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, we take no position on any pending legislation.

    We hope that the material we provide will be helpful in the Committee’s consideration of the issue.

    Executive Summary

    Tobacco taxes are the highest they have ever been in the United States. The federal rate currently stands at $1.0066 per pack of cigarettes, and state and local rates add as much as an additional $6.16 per pack (as in Chicago, Illinois). These combined rates are equivalent to a tax in excess of 200 percent in some locales.

    The high tax burden on tobacco results in de facto prohibition of the products, bringing all the undesirable outcomes associated with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. In our research we have found evidence of substantial tobacco smuggling from low to high tax jurisdictions, violent crime, theft of tobacco and tobacco tax stamps, corruption of law-enforcement officers, and even funding of terrorist organizations through crime rings.

  • The “loosies” rationale for the arrest of Garner was a johnny-come-lately excuse by the NYPD. Until they present evidence he was selling “loosies” at that time, it ought not to be treated with any credibility. Until they produce the evidence, Garner was simply killed without reason or justification.

  • What I find even more curious is

    – the same political orientation that supports these sumptuary taxes seems to think it’s no big deal if people beat them
    – the Left in general thinks its AOK if people who are perceived as minority or disenfranchised beat taxes. They truly believe that only the “1%” should pay for anything, everyone else deserves a free ride.

  • Bacchys raises the important point of why Eric Garner was being arrested.

    There were 4-5 Police Officers attempting to subdue Mr. Garner. They did not spontaneously decide to jump on Mr. Garner. Someone issued an order.

    There was a NYPD SGT present at the scene. A NYPD SGT is visible to one side at the end of one of the videos. NYPD SGTs are supervisors; when no higher officer is present, the SGT is in charge. Why is all the media and legal attention focused only one Police Officer and not the SGT?

    Could it have anything to do with the fact that the SGT is female and she is Black?

  • […] The New York policy has proved a highly effective way to bring petty and not-always-so-petty crime to New Yorkers’ everyday lives. With I-95, I-70 and other corridors, Maryland is already one of the most accessible states for […]