Let's say you're an official in a jurisdiction that has raised cigarette taxes so high that the majority of smokes consumed in the state come from the black market — either smuggled in from lower-tax jurisdictions or else outright counterfeits sold as the real deal to consumers trying to avoid being mugged as they enjoy their chosen vice. Assuming that your goal is to get everybody to go to the black market, what else can you do to nudge retailers and smokers to deal with the guys selling off the back of trucks? Well, how about raising the smoking age — effectively imposing prohibition on some existing smokers so that they have to go underground to get their smokes? That's the plan in New York City, where officials, including a leading mayoral candidate, want to rase the legal age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21.
Reports the New York Times:
Young New Yorkers would not be able to buy cigarettes until they were 21, up from the current 18, under a proposal advanced Monday by Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the city’s health commissioner, and Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker.
The proposal, which would give New York the highest smoking age in the country among major cities, is the latest effort in a long campaign to limit smoking that began soon after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office, with bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, and expanding more recently to bans at parks, beaches, plazas and other public places.
Quinn is currently leading the pack among mayoral hopefuls, and clearly sees New Yorkers' eager embrace of being bossed around by Michael Bloomberg as evidence that presumptuous nanny state is a winning campaign platform. The only hitch in Farley's and Quinn's nannyish dreams is the the thriving black market that already serves smokers already tired of being nagged and nudged to quit. I noted last week that, every two years, Michigan's Mackinac Center for Public Policy surveys the cigarette market and breaks down, by state, the estimated percentage of the cigarette market served by smugglers. As the center's Michael D. LaFaive and Todd Nesbit, Ph.D. put it:
We find that New York currently holds the top position as the highest net importer of smuggled cigarettes in 2011, with smuggled cigarettes totaling a staggering 60.9 percent of the total market. Not coincidentally, New York also has the nation’s highest state cigarette tax at $4.35 per pack, plus another $1.50 levied in New York City.
Add a hike in the legal age to purchase cigarettes to those high taxes, and we just may find out if there's any real ceiling to the percentage of a nominally legal product that can be sourced in the black market.