Are Cigarettes the New Joints? Get Ready for Homegrown Tobacco.

It's a plant. It grows in dirt.


Assef Elweter

High cigarette taxes fuel a surging black market in smuggled cigarettes, notes Americans for Tax Reform's Patrick Gleason in the Wall Street Journal. New York smokers are the greatest beneficiaries of that black market, burdened as they are with the most ridiculous cigarette taxes in the country. There's a huge flow of smuggled smokes from relatively low-tax states like Virginia. And some smokers are turning to an alternative to which marijuana fanciers facing legal pressures of their own have resorted for decades: growing their own.

High tobacco taxes result from muddled policy goals implemented with the special incompetence that government officials bring to every task they undertake. Politicians simultaneously want to maximize revenue and raise taxes so high that they discourage once-again (this is an historical cycle) socially unacceptable tobacco consumption. Those are not compatible goals. What officials accomplish, instead, is a bonanza of unintended consequences. Notes Gleason:

Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.'s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike.

That could be because smokers are quitting, accomplishing at least one policy goal, but it's not. Instead, consumers turn to other sources, with the black market's share of cigarettes in New York now standing at at 56.87 percent for 2012, according to the Mackinac Center. What to do? How about blaming Virginia for having lower taxes, and suing shipping services for actually running trucks into the state of New York that occasionally contain smuggled goods?

Oh yeah. And officials impose harsh enforcement of tax collection, to the point that Eric Garner dies during a tussle with cops that had its start in the sale of loose cigarettes.

Enforcement may have another unintended consequence, though, too, in addition to a booming black market. It's driving people to remember that tobacco, like marijuana, is a plant that's just not all that hard to grow.

New Zealand, an island nation that's consequently harder for cigarette smugglers to reach than New York is from Virginia, experienced a surge in homegrown tobacco this year after taxes were hiked. There, as in the U.S. it's legal to cultivate a patch for your own consumption, with the red tape accumulating only if you try to turn it into a commercial enterprise. "Entrepreneurial home tobacco plant growers are cashing in on the price hike and using websites and social media pages to sell tobacco plant seeds," reports the New Zealand Herald.

In his 2001 book, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, author Iain Gately noted that the plant "is easy to grow on a non-commercial scale, and home-grown, with a modicum of care, will produce a satisfying smoke." An appendix to his book explains how to do exactly that.

New York City's Audrey Silk, a smoking rights activist, was profiled in the New York Times in 2011 for growing her own in Brooklyn. Her motivation, revealed not just in that article, but in the documentary below, should be familiar to Reason readers: she doesn't like being told what to do. For her, the cost savings of bypassing taxes is almost secondary to the finger she's flipping to anti-smokers.

A quick Internet search reveals that selling tobacco seeds, heirloom varieties included, has bloomed into a healthy cottage industry. Obviously, those sellers don't exist without buyers, many of whom are motivated by the tax-fueled rise in the price of smokes. In 2009 after big tax hikes, "some seed suppliers have reported a tenfold increase in sales," according to Fox News.

Then again, the popular culture of homegrown marijuana has thrived even without easy legal access to seeds. Demand finds its own supply. The ease of growing marijuana quickly overcame the laws against it, and produced enthusiastic hobbyists, as well as those willing to take the next step to illicit commercial production.

Growing your own tobacco is unlikely to become a universal curative for high cigarette taxes—or for outright prohibition, if we move in that direction. But as an adjunct to black market sources, it shows all the promise that home gardening did for ensuring availability of the last popular plant politicians tried to restrict.

NEXT: Hillary Clinton on Guns: Not a Big Fan

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  1. People are just figuring out you can grow tobacco? I quit smoking before I got to that point, but…

  2. There was not enough Hillary in this article, and since we’re apparently ready for Hillary, I give you this:

    She’s fought children and families her whole career

    1. Selina Meyer would be proud.

      1. Last night’s episode was a great slap at Obama and being President Teleprompter. It’s amazing how subtly insulting that show is to politicians. I have a theory that its creator and writers may have actually worked for/amongst the political class and came to hate them and their narcissism terribly, and express that in the show.

        1. actually worked for/amongst the political class and came to hate them and their narcissism terribly,

          That’s what happened to me.

          1. You’re a writer on Veep?!?

            1. No, I worked for a congressman for two years. I was just agreeing that actually spending time with them will (should?) make most people hate them.

              1. No, I understood, I was just joking.

              2. Agreed.

                I interned for a GOP state assemblyman in Sacramento back when I was in college. I actually saw him recently in my office building, getting some consulting work because he was running for congress in another district. I thought about saying hi to him and then I remembered that I hate politicians.

    2. My Hillary quotient has been fulfilled for the day. Therefor, I am going to go read the boobs article on cracked.

      1. Having 212 boobs would be funny.

  3. People have been doing this halfway for years; by rolling their own smokes. When cigarettes started to be taxed so heavily, some people turned to loose tobacco which was not taxed nearly as much, and just rolled their own. Growing the tobacco themselves too is just the next step. Fuck the government.

    1. Not too long ago raised the tax on loose cigarette tobacco by a huge amount.

      So you get pipe tobacco instead which Obama didn’t raise the tax on. Same stuff, just cut slightly different.

      1. And a much more pleasant smoke, but that’s just my personal preference.

        1. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference.

          But that could be because I was hand rolling with no filters.
          Still, a $10 bag of pipeweed would last a long time.

          I’ve since switched to DIY e-juice. One liter of juice is probably gonna last me a year and cost like $40. I’ve spent more than that on a battery and tank.

      2. Yeah, I thought I heard that they closed that “loophole”. I don’t care, I just bought some cartons of smokes in Idaho for 2/3 the price of Washington. And liquor at 6% tax instead of Washington’s effective 30%. Thank you Idaho!

        1. I’ve heard that a great way to save money on booze is to stop by Costco when you’re in Kentucky.

        2. Oh that’s a shame. I was in Boise two weeks ago. We could’ve grabbed a deep dish pizza together.

      3. 1700% tax increase on loose cigarette tobacco. Obama signed it into law in the first 10 days of his presidency. Stickin’ it to those fatcats with their Topps and Bugler to avoid paying their “fair share”.

  4. Taxes will likely have to go up dramatically for growing your own tobacco to gain any traction. It takes time, effort, and patience. Plus, imagine some NYC folks trying to cram an indoor tobacco grow operation into their shoebox of an apartment.

    1. Most people don’t grow their own weed, but somebody grows it for them. We’ll see the same with tobacco. It just won’t be Philip Morris doing all the growing.

    2. Rooftop-grown, certified organic, locally sourced tobacco is where it is at. With a side of artisinal mayo.

      1. YES! I can’t wait to taste the “urban honey” that’s made with tobacco pollen.

    3. The tough part with tobacco is the curing process. It will have to get pretty bad before home grown tobacco becomes a big thing since it will be pretty terrible for the most part.

  5. Can’t wait for the Artisinal Tobacco Store to open up in Brooklyn!

    1. Sloopy’s Artisinal Tobacco and Mayonaise

      1. Sloopy’s Artisinal Tobacconaise

        1. Good ol’ Tomacco.

          1. “This tastes like Grandma!”

    2. I can’t believe that there aren’t several already. Actually, that’s pretty much what all cigar stores are. Hand rolled by poor people. Doesn’t get more artisanal than that.

  6. I have never smoked and really dislike the smell of tobacco smoke, especially stale tobacco smoke.

    But even I can see that taxing tobacco to the point where there is a large black market and ostracizing tobacco smokers is a bad idea.

  7. Gasp! The leaders of our Glorious Collective will lose revenue! We can’t have that!

    And and and if people gr-gr-grow their own, it won’t be regulated! Which means we’ll all die!!!!!!!!

  8. Yeah, I just can’t wait for the those no-knock tobacco grow swat team raids, for the children.

  9. Voice of experience here, folks:

    Growing tobacco to smoke is not that easy. You really have to be stripping leaves, etc., and you have to know which leaves you want to smoke, because there’s a lot of difference between the lower/older leaves and the higher/newer leaves.

    But that’s not really the tricky part. The tricky part is curing it so its palatable. Pot can be “cured” just by drying it. Not so with tobacco.

    Bottom line: homegrown tobacco is about as much a threat to Philip Morris as homebrewed beer is to Anheuser-Busch.

    1. As long as you grow it right, sucker it right, cut it at the right time and have a vented pole barn to hang it in, and take it down at just the right time, you’re all good.

      When I was a kid I worked on a tobacco farm for a few seasons.

    2. The real danger to Anheuser-Busch is that now those home brewers became craft brewers.

    3. Time, temperature, and humidity.

      That’s really all their is to curing.

      Considering how in ye olden days people just hung in a barn or shed, the tolerances in those three parameters has some lee-way.

      The worst that can happen is you get a batch that tastes like ass.

      1. In ye olden days, people didn’t smoke cigarettes. To make tobacco that is good for cigarettes that someone other than old French dudes will smoke take a lot more care and selection.

      2. People still do just hang it in their barns. My grandpa was a tobacco farmer and everyone had to help him when it came time. I used to strip it and put it in the presses and as far as I remember all he ever did was hang it in the barn after staking it and letting it set in the fields for a little while.

        It’s still grown back home (KY) but it’s been so long since I worked with it that I don’t really remember a whole lot.

        You can plug a stump and put some in there and give it a nice hickory taste for example.

        Also, I would like to say that tobacco in itself is not harmful. It’s all the shit they put in it at the big factories that makes it so bad. Why they don’t make them stop doing that instead of trying to kill the industry is beyond me.

  10. I have been curious why homegrown tobacco isn’t a thing in this country. Set it up as a cooperative to pool resources/talent and people get a portion of what they contributed at the end. (No idea how legal this is and whether it crosses the line to “commercial activity”.)

    1. See some of the comments above about how it is fairly difficult to do right.

  11. I thought the production of tobacco was far more complicated than the simple cultivation of the plant. The curing process appears to be rather complex and important to the quality of the final product.

    1. You could cure the leaves the same way people cured tobacco 200 or more years ago, back when it was a cottage industry.

      1. You could. But it wouldn’t be anything like modern cigarette tobacco.

  12. Seems like seeds are easy to get:

    Heirloom tobacco seeds from Victory Seeds

    Heirloom and organic seeds from Sustainable Seed Company (400 USD for 150 different packets for different types and varieties of tobacco seeds!)

  13. Tobacco is very hard to grow, Weed is easy.

    1. That shit grows like a weed!

  14. I’d assume that if very many people did it, the government would attempt to pass a law against “growing your own” simply because the government would resent being deprived of the taxes that they could collect.

    As for the claim that “smokers” cost society “more” than non-smokers, it might be considered that smokers die earlier, so they draw less money out of Social Security before “passing on”. Whether or not they add to health care costs depends upon the individual smoker and the effects of a life long addiction to tobacco. Both of my parents were smokers, but neither ran up large medical bills before their deaths. My father at the age of 82 and my mother at the age of 87.

  15. New York smokers are the greatest beneficiaries of that black market

    No, New York bodegas are. You don’t think they’re passing on the savings to their customers do you?

  16. Bull’s eye! I totally agree with this story. Higher taxes for cigarette won’t decrease the number of smokers; instead it will just increase cigarette smugglers in the black market. If they really want to lower down the number of smokers, they better come up with another approach. –

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