Cigarette taxes and terrorism

Posted: May 16, 2002 12:00 AM
Do you remember those $3.5 million government ads that ran during the Super Bowl -- the ones linking drug use with terrorism? "Timmy," a somber-looking teenager, stared at the camera and said: "I killed mothers. I killed fathers. I killed grandmas. I killed grandpas. I killed sons. I killed daughters. I killed firemen. I killed policemen." A stark, guilt-laden message from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy flashed during a brief pause: "DRUG MONEY SUPPORTS TERRORISM. IF YOU BUY DRUGS, YOU MIGHT, TOO." Then, Timmy added: "Technically, I didn't kill these people. I just kind of helped." Well, now it's the finger-wagging government's turn to 'fess up to its own indirect role in funding terrorism -- through sky-high cigarette taxes. Let me explain. Next week, the alleged ringleader of an organized-crime cell based in Charlotte, N.C., will go on trial for providing cash and military-style technology to Hezbollah. This is the Lebanese-based guerrilla group designated a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997. It has been tied to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and to the 1983 Marine barracks truck bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen. Federal prosecutors say that Mohammad Youssef Hammoud, his brothers and more than a dozen others collaborated in a major cigarette smuggling, money laundering and immigration fraud business to support Hezbollah activities abroad. The ring members purchased cheap cigarettes in Charlotte, where the tobacco tax is just five cents a pack, then hauled them to high-tax Michigan, which raised tobacco taxes from 25 cents a pack to 75 cents in 1994. Hammoud's operation is believed to have reaped millions of dollars of profit over a four-year period. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the FBI says the men used the money to buy "night vision goggles; cameras and scopes; surveying equipment; global positioning systems; mine and metal detection equipment; video equipment; advanced aircraft analysis and design software; laptop computers; stun guns; radios; mining, drilling and blasting equipment; radars; ultrasonic dog repellers; (and) laser range finders." Suspected cell members reportedly owned mounds of terrorist propaganda, including a video with Hezbollah guerrillas in suicide bombing gear listening to a leader chant: "We swear by the blood and the scattered body parts of our children and the tortures of our prisoners that we will answer the call and will continue to detonate ourselves to cause the earth to shake under the feet of our enemy, America and Israel." The indictment of one of the ring members says he traveled to Lebanon three years ago and delivered a $3,500 payment to a Hezbollah military commander. If not for taxaholic bureaucrats, this suspected terrorist operation wouldn't have gotten off the ground. States addicted to nicotine-stained revenue are all too happy to participate in the sanctimonious charade of condemning the vice while pocketing a chunk of the profits. But those who advocate punitive tobacco taxes to reduce smoking and "protect kids" continue to ignore the connection between sin taxes and illegal sales. Every state along the East Coast that has slapped astronomical and regressive taxes on tobacco has been invaded by increasingly savvy and organized smugglers. It's the same story in Canada and Sweden, where even the socialists have finally figured out that they should give up on their quasi-prohibitionist experiment and cut tobacco tax rates to put smugglers out of business. In New York, which recently imposed the highest tobacco tax in the nation ($1.50 a pack), police are bracing for an inevitable bootlegging bonanza. Yet, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg wants to tack on another $1.50 tax to cigarettes. That's sure to win him brownie points with the men and women in blue -- many of them smokers themselves -- who will now have to shoulder the added burden of chasing down droves of organized smuggling rings from low-taxing neighbor states, military bases, Indian reservations, Internet retailers and Mexican operatives. And possibly more Middle East terrorists. The feds have used taxpayer funds to draw a tenuous link between drug abuse and terrorism. But the link between high tobacco taxes and terrorist funding is far stronger. Sure, greedy state and federal lawmakers didn't
directly fund Hezbollah terrorist killers. As "Timmy" put it so well, they "just kind of helped."