During the lead up to the second war in Iraq Prime Minister Tony Blair made a startling statement to Parliament that was echoed in the United States: Use drugs and support the war on Terror. Blair argued that much of the heroin on the streets of London came from fields in Afghanistan that were funding terror all over the world. Of course using drug money to fund terror isn’t new, although it does have its challenges. Drug interdiction forces, Interpol and illegality make the Heroin for Hezbollah angle a tough one to maintain. But what about Marlboro for the Mafia or Lucky Strikes for Al Qaeda? Due to a mixture of government bickering, mis-communication and sheer ineptitude, the United States government is allowing millions of dollars in tobacco to be smuggled for organized crime and worse, international terror organizations.
This debacle of international proportions stems from infighting between the FDA and the Treasury which has allowed terrorists and organized crime to smuggle tobacco across state lines with impunity for over a decade, costing the taxpayers billions and funding criminal and terror organizations the world over. How does all of this happen? The honor system.
Current laws require tobacco manufacturers to self-report how many cigarettes they produce, which in turn allows the Treasury to tax them and put the money back into healthcare, government services and regulation. Of course there is not much incentive for the tobacco companies to properly report their entire inventories, so in many cases millions of cigarettes just disappear. It doesnt take more than one Netflix season of the Sopranos to know that organized crime has long used smuggled cigarettes for profits, taking cancer sticks from low-cost places like North Carolina and Virginia and selling them at a discount in high-cost regions like New York State. And the harsh reality is that as much as big tobacco isn’t happy about several crates of menthol lights going missing every week, that lost revenue pales in comparison to the taxes that would be linked to proper reporting of all inventories.
According to Congressman Peter King, Al Qaeda and other international terror organizations have moved into the picture. King published a 2008 report from the House Homeland Security Committee that outlines the link between “Tobacco and Terror.” The ease with which tobacco can be smuggled is significantly less complicated and much easier to hide than illegal drugs. And therefore there have been a number of cases in the last decade where smuggled tobacco was used as front for terror cells both in and out of the United States. Tobacco smuggling has been active in the United States since Prohibition, so while states lose money and the mob gets richer and terror cells gain power one would think that the U.S government would want to get involved to curb this type of open-ended criminal cesspool. Fortunately there is a solution, so far we just haven’t mustered the political will to make it happen.
Track and trace is a program where all tobacco products are tagged with a special counterfeit resistant stamp at their source, in the factory. This process sets several key changes in motion. First, it allows the state and federal government to know the actual amount of cigarettes being made in each factory, increasing the reliability of taxing and putting literally millions of dollars back into state and federal coffers that Big Tobacco has been skimming off for years. Second, this process allows for better tracking of tobacco products which hurts organized crime, and makes smuggling much less attractive for would-be terrorists as well. In California alone, the implementation of Track and Trace led to an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue.
So why hasn’t this program been implement everywhere? A turf battle between the FDA and the Treasury has left the nation in a mess and mobsters and terrorists sitting pretty. The FDA is charged with improving tracking and taxing on cigarettes, however, tobacco research in the FDA is funded in part by user fees from Big Tobacco. Any additional tax revenue that comes from Track and Trace would go to the Treasury, not the FDA. So while these two agencies argue over who gets to bigger slice of the carcinogenic pie, the nation continues to suffer.
A group of anti-smoking groups have tried to intervene with the FDA to break this deadlock. They have imposed a July 1st deadline for the implementation of Track and Trace programs. Action is starting in Congress as well. Just before he died, Senator Frank Lautenberg joined with fellow Senators Dick Durbin, Tom Harkin and Richard Blumenthal to mandate track and trace. Similar legislation in the House of Representatives has been championed by Congressman Lloyd Doggett. One would hope that a nation as obsessed with fighting terror and crime as the United States, that Congress, law enforcement leaders and healthcare advocates would finally be able to push these changes through.