Illegal cigarette sales are rampant in cities across Connecticut, contributing to a tobacco- and cigarette-related illicit market that funds street gangs, organized crime, and even terrorism. That’s why it’s critical that the General Assembly recognize that banning menthol cigarettes will hurt Connecticut’s communities.
The Public Health Committee of the General Assembly is considering SB 326, a proposal to ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, without considering the danger it might create in our communities. Yes, the popularity of fruity, candy flavored e-cigarettes or “vapes” among young people is a serious problem. It should be addressed with aggressive policy solutions. By contrast, the use of menthol cigarettes among Connecticut’s teens is not increasing. However, menthol cigarettes are still the preference of many adults who choose to smoke. Banning that product will just push sales out of the stores and create a lucrative illicit market.
In my 28-year career in law enforcement, I’ve seen first-hand the deadly realities of the criminal cigarette market. I know that cigarettes are a lucrative commodity traded by petty criminals, street gangs, and organized crime. Some criminals, especially here in Connecticut, profit from the tax disparity between states. They literally buy truckloads of cigarettes in low-tax markets such as Missouri where the tax is only 17 cents and smuggle them into high-tax markets like Connecticut, where excise and sales taxes combine to add $4.43 per pack. With a $4.16 difference, there’s a significant profit motive and a lot of cash is made. That cash, unfortunately, is used to buy guns and drugs, or to fund other criminal enterprises.
At a time when the pandemic and social unrest have brought unprecedented uncertainty to Connecticut’s small businesses and the state economy, an ill-conceived ban on menthol cigarettes will deal a mortal wound. The ban will generate more violent crime while law enforcement budgets are under pressure. The Mackinac Center estimates that one in four packs of cigarettes in Connecticut are smuggled into the state. Cigarette smuggling already costs Connecticut hundreds of millions of dollars.
Banning menthols will not reduce demand. It will just take revenue from our state and important social programs and drive it to neighboring states just as we have seen in the failed Massachusetts experiment. Worse, a ban will just generate a windfall for crooks and gangsters. Critical public services including police budgets will suffer as a result. More criminals on the streets and fewer cops is a bad formula. In 2018, San Francisco banned menthol cigarettes and evidence of violence began immediately. Within six months, armed robberies of smoke shops and convenience stores in nearby Fresno spiked, reinforcing the danger posed to mom and pop retailers after a ban is passed.
Bans have been proven ineffective as a way to discourage cigarette and tobacco use. In fact, it’s been proven that using education to prevent cigarette use is working. According to the CDC, existing measures to promote smoking cessation have driven smoking among adults to an all-time low.
Smart public health policy should always include public safety. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are if your community is threatened by crime. A menthol cigarette ban in Connecticut would have potential to create one of the most lucrative criminal cigarette markets in history. I encourage the Connecticut General Assembly to closely consider these vital issues in order to protect Connecticut citizens from violent crime.
Rich Marianos is a retired Assistant Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University. He is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.