- Excessive tax rates on cigarettes in some states induce substantial black and gray market movement of tobacco products into high-tax states from low-tax states or foreign sources.
- New York has the highest inbound smuggling activity, with an estimated 53.2 percent of cigarettes consumed in the state deriving from smuggled sources in 2018. New York is followed by California (47.7 percent of consumption smuggled), Washington (40.1 percent), New Mexico (36 percent), and Minnesota (35.8 percent).
- New Hampshire has the highest level of outbound smuggling at 66.8 percent of consumption, likely due to its relatively low tax rates and proximity to high-tax states in the northeastern United States. Following New Hampshire is Idaho (27.4 percent outbound smuggling), Wyoming (23.1 percent), Virginia (22.8 percent), and North Dakota (20 percent).
- Rhode Island, following a cigarette tax increase from $3.75 to $4.25 in the Summer of 2017, has seen a significant increase in smuggling into the state, moving it from a ranking of 18th to 8th highest inflow of cigarettes in the U.S.
- Cigarette tax rates increased in 39 states and the District of Columbia between 2006 and 2017.
- Lawmakers interested in taxing and regulating electronic cigarettes should understand the policy trade-offs related to high taxation or bans of nicotine products. With distribution networks already well-developed, criminal gangs are poised to expand into vapor products.
Tobacco Tax Differentials across States Cause Significant Smuggling
The crafting of tax policy can never be divorced from an understanding of the law of unintended consequences, but it is too often disregarded or misunderstood in political debate, and sometimes policies, however well-intentioned, have unintended consequences that outweigh their benefits.
One notable consequence of high state cigarette excise tax rates has been increased smuggling as people procure discounted packs from low-tax states and sell them in high-tax states. Growing cigarette tax differentials have made cigarette smuggling both a national problem and, in some cases, a lucrative criminal enterprise.
Each year, scholars at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, use a statistical analysis of available data to estimate smuggling rates for each state. Their most recent report uses 2018 data and finds that smuggling rates generally rise in states after they adopt cigarette tax increases. Smuggling rates have dropped in some states, often where neighboring states have higher cigarette tax rates. Table 1 shows the data for each state, comparing 2018 and 2006 smuggling rates and tax changes.
New York is the highest net importer of smuggled cigarettes, totaling 53.2 percent of total cigarette consumption in the state. New York also has one of the highest state cigarette taxes ($4.35 per pack), not counting the additional local New York City cigarette tax ($1.50 per pack). Smuggling in New York has risen sharply since 2006 (+49 percent), as has the tax rate (+190 percent). In October 2019, three people were charged in connection with smuggling cigarettes on the Staten Island Ferry. They were in possession of 30,000 untaxed cigarettes and $63,000 in cash, and they are just the tip of the spear. The inbound flow of cigarettes, not appropriately taxed by New York, is estimated to cost the state $1.2 billion.
Smuggling in Rhode Island has increased sharply since the last data release. The state increased the cigarette excise tax from $3.75 to $4.25, which resulted in increased inflow of almost 70 percent. As a result, Rhode Island jumped 10 places on our ranking. Over the same period, inbound smuggling decreased in nearby Massachusetts, from 25 percent to 21.5 percent, suggesting that Rhode Island’s tax increase impacted interstate smuggling. This effect can also be seen in Delaware. In 2017, Delaware had outbound flow of 40.6 percent but, after a tax increase of $0.50 per pack, this outflow had decreased to 11.5 percent in 2018. In 2017, Pennsylvania had inbound flow of 14.4 percent, but following a tax increase in the Keystone State, the state inbound smuggling increased to 24.3 percent.
Other peer-reviewed studies provide support for these findings. A 2018 study in Public Finance Review examined littered packs of cigarettes across 132 communities in 38 states, finding that 21 percent of packs did not have proper local stamps.
As noted by LaFaive and Nesbit, primary authors of the Mackinac Center study, smuggling comes in different forms: “casual” smuggling, where smaller quantities of cigarettes are purchased in one area and then transported for personal consumption, and “commercial” smuggling, which is large-scale criminal activity that can involve counterfeit state tax stamps, counterfeit versions of legitimate brands, hijacked trucks, or officials turning a blind eye.
The Mackinac Center has cited numerous examples over the many editions of this report, including stories of a Maryland police officer running illicit cigarettes while on duty, a Virginia man hiring a contract killer over a cigarette smuggling dispute, and prison guards caught smuggling cigarettes into prisons.
Policy responses in recent years have included banning common carrier delivery of cigarettes, greater law enforcement activity on interstate roads, differential tax rates near low-tax jurisdictions, and cracking down on tribal reservations that sell tax-free cigarettes. However, the underlying problem remains: high cigarette taxes amount to a “price prohibition” on the legal product in many U.S. states.
International Smuggling and Counterfeiting Puts Consumers at Risk
While buying cigarettes in low-tax states and selling in high-tax states is widespread in the United States, other methods for evading federal, state, and local taxes are popular. One way that criminals grow their profits is by avoiding the legal market completely. They produce counterfeit cigarettes with the look and feel of legitimate brands and sell them with counterfeit tax stamps. Many of these products are smuggled from China, with one source estimating that Chinese counterfeiters produce 400 billion cigarettes per year to meet international demand.
Global focus on counterfeit cigarettes has forced the criminals to innovate. A growing global problem is the so-called illicit whites or cheap whites. These products are produced legally in low-tax jurisdictions, but often intended for smuggling.
Smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes are dangerous products as they do not live up to the quality control standards imposed on legitimate brand cigarettes. Pappas et al. (2007) find that counterfeit cigarettes can have as much as seven times the lead of authentic brands, and close to three times as much thallium, a toxic heavy metal. Other sources report finding insect eggs, dead flies, mold, and human feces in counterfeit cigarettes.
During prohibition of alcohol in the United States during the 1920s, increased enforcement did not manage to significantly decrease the prevalence of bootlegging because the profit margins were so large, and the distribution networks sophisticated. The same is true for today’s cigarette smugglers.
In June 2019, Canadian authorities arrested nine people who reportedly smuggled over one million pounds of tobacco (valued at CA $110 million). According to police, the group was involved in both theft and arms trafficking. Also that year, European authorities arrested 22 people across five countries representing an organized crime ring suspected of large-scale cigarette trafficking, drug trafficking, assassinations, and money laundering which had netted an estimated $750 million over two years. This year in Spain, authorities busted an underground illegal cigarette factory. The organized crime network behind the operation is suspected of large-scale cigarette trafficking with profits estimated at $647,000 per week.
Global illicit trade in tobacco is a growing problem, but is considered low-risk, high-reward. Billions of dollars are made each year, and the trade involves corruption, money laundering, and terrorism. According to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF): “Large-scale organized smuggling likely accounts for the vast majority of cigarettes smuggled globally.” These operations hurt governments, who lose out on revenue; consumers, because the products often don’t adhere to health standards; legal businesses, which cannot compete with illicit products; and the general respect of the law.
A Cautionary Tale
Most vapor product users also smoke or previously smoked cigarettes. With this in mind, we can imagine the behaviors of vapers to mirror those of smokers. Over the last few years, both federal and state lawmakers have called for flavor bans and cigarette-level taxation of vapor products. As the data from cigarettes clearly show, the risk of creating a new black market or fueling an existing one with operators willing and able to supply nicotine products to consumers is significant. In addition, several states have either implemented or are considering implementing flavor bans on cigarettes. These bans risk further escalating tax avoidance, tax evasion, and illicit sales in the U.S.
There are already reports of nicotine-containing liquid coming into the U.S. from questionable sources. In addition to tax evasion—costing states billions in lost tax revenue—black market e-liquid and cigarettes can be extremely unsafe. Last year, stories about serious pulmonary diseases have prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to publish a warning about black market THC-containing liquid (the psychoactive compound in marijuana).  Reports of illicit products containing dangerous chemicals resulting in serious medical conditions also arose in 2019. Providing vapers with a well-regulated legal market will limit the distribution of illegal products.
In addition to the dangers to consumers, the legal market would also suffer, as untaxed and unregulated products would have significant competitive advantages over high-priced legal products. This would impact not only the large number of small business owners operating over 10,000 vape shops around the country, but also convenience stores and gas stations relying heavily on vapers as well as tobacco sales. Policymakers should not lose sight of the law of unintended consequences as they set rates and regulatory regimes for tobacco and vapor products alike.
|State||2018 State Tax||2018 Consumption Smuggled (positive is inflow, negative is outflow)||2006 Consumption Smuggled (positive is inflow, negative is outflow)||2018 Rank||Rank Change since 2017||Excise Tax Rate change 2006-2018|
|District of Columbia||$4.500||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||350%|
|North Dakota||$0.440||-20.0%||3.0%||43||-2||No change|
Note: Alaska, Hawaii, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia are not included in the study. Cigarette tax rates have changed for three states since 2018 (Illinois, New Mexico, and Virginia).
Source: Mackinac Center for Public Policy; Tax Foundation
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