It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue. When applied to this object, the saying is as just as it is witty, that, "in political arithmetic, two and two do not always make four .'' If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them.
Public policies often have unintended consequences that outweigh their benefits. One consequence of high state cigarette tax rates has been increased smuggling as criminals procure discounted packs from low-tax states to sell in high-tax states. Growing cigarette tax differentials have made cigarette smuggling both a national problem and a lucrative criminal enterprise.
Each year, scholars at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, use a statistical analysis of available data to estimate smuggling rates for each state. Their most recent report uses 2013 data and finds that smuggling rates generally rise in states after they adopt large cigarette tax increases. Smuggling rates have dropped in some states, however, often where neighboring states have higher cigarette tax rates. Table 1 shows the data for each state, comparing 2013 and 2006 smuggling rates and tax changes.
New York is the highest net importer of smuggled cigarettes, totaling 58.0 percent of the total cigarette market in the state. New York also has the highest state cigarette tax ($4.35 per pack), not counting the additional local New York City cigarette tax (an additional $1.50 per pack). Smuggling in New York has risen sharply since 2006 (+62 percent), as has the tax rate (+190 percent).
Smuggling in Illinois has also increased dramatically, from 1.1 percent to 20.9 percent since the last data release. This is likely related to the fact that the Illinois state cigarette tax rate was hiked from $0.98 to $1.98 in mid-2012. This increase in smuggling may continue in future data editions, as more recent increases in both the Cook County rate (from $2.00 to $3.00 per pack, effective March 1, 2013) and the Chicago municipal rate (from $0.68 to $1.18, effective January 10, 2014) have brought the combined state-county-municipal rate to $6.16 per pack of cigarettes, the highest combined rate in the country.
Other peer-reviewed studies provide support for these findings. Recently, a study in Tobacco Control examined littered packs of cigarettes in five northeast cities, finding that 58.7 percent of packs did not have proper local stamps. The authors estimated 30.5 to 42.1 percent of packs were trafficked.
Smuggling takes many forms: counterfeit state tax stamps, counterfeit versions of legitimate brands, hijacked trucks, or officials turning a blind eye. The study’s authors, LaFaive and Nesbit, cite examples of a Maryland police officer running illicit cigarettes while on duty, a Virginia man hiring a contract killer over a cigarette smuggling dispute, and prison guards caught smuggling cigarettes into prisons. Policy responses have included banning common carrier delivery of cigarettes, greater law enforcement activity on interstate roads, differential tax rates near low-tax jurisdictions, and cracking down on tribal reservations that sell tax-free cigarettes. However, the underlying problem remains: high cigarette taxes that amount to a “price prohibition” of the product in many U.S. states.