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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tobacco Speakeasy

Prohibition Lite Is Making RYO Cigarettes All the Rage

A month ago, I was sitting with some college students for lunch. After we ate, two of them took out loose-leaf tobacco and rolling papers, with filters and all. They started rolling cigarettes at the table. In some way, it looked more like poverty than a charming anachronism. Puzzled, I asked why they were doing this.

The answer was what I feared: Thanks to taxes, no student can really afford pre-rolled cigarettes anymore. You can avoid those taxes by rolling your own for a fraction of the price.

And so it has come to be. Students are equipping dorm rooms with rolling machines. Kids carry pouches and filters. They are only occasional smokers but they are serious about the art and technique of rolling.

It strikes me as very strange, like a reversal of time. It’s one thing to do this as a hobby—people brew their own beer and even make their own cars—but as a necessity? Sadly, this is not just a fashion trend. It is a direct result of government policy that has effectively reversed the course of history.

An older man once told me that back in the 1930s, “ready roll” cigarettes brought a huge upgrade to his life—sort of like indoor heating, telephones in every home, and the electric icebox. Thanks to ready rolls, there was no more fussing with papers and spilling contents. How peculiar, then, that roll-your-own (RYO) has made such a roaring comeback today.

It’s a forced result, something that would not have happened but for intervention. Was this what it was like to live in Cuba in the 1970s or Russia in the 1950s, places and times where cars and heaters had to be hacked just to keep from slipping further back in time? Is this all we are destined to do, hold desperately onto memories of a good life we once knew and hack our way toward survival?

Maybe it seems like a small sign, but there are just so many signs. It's hard to get even legal medications and so more people are relying on sketchy websites. Appliances like washing machines and dishwashers that once worked now have to be hacked up just to function. You can't buy a decent gas can anymore. Proposed taxes on sugar, salt, and fat collectively seem like a move to outlaw birthday cakes. Are we going to have to get those from the darknet? And the tobacco example is not insignificant, either.

I decided to visit ground zero of the roll-your-own movement in my town, a small discount tobacco store. Sure enough, half the products in the store were related to RYO cigs. There was a representative there from a company selling some impressive rolling equipment—an example of capitalism working even when the government tries to stop it. He demonstrated to me how the machine works. You put the paper and filler in the side and fill up the slot with tobacco. Then you turn the crank. Out comes the perfect cigarette.

He was also using pipe tobacco. When I asked why he was using this stronger stuff for cigarettes, he said it was a “special blend that is more economical.”

I looked and him with a knowing smile and asked, “Ah, you mean it is taxed at a lower rate? He smiled back, let his guard down, and said, “Precisely!”

He told me that taxes weren’t the only reason RYO was becoming more popular. Smokers believe RYO tobacco is healthier, he told me, since it doesn’t include the FDA-mandated chemical flame retardant—meant to keep tobacco from burning sofas and beds—that pre-rolled cigarettes do.

This began about four years ago. Reduced fire propensity cigs are now mandated in 43 states. The added substance is EVA, a carpet glue. Many people report that it tastes awful. Others say that this stuff is more dangerous to ingest than the tobacco. The government doesn’t care. Cigarette makers go along.

I was stunned. We have heard about the dangers of smoking for a century. But what about the dangers of being looted and poisoned by bureaucrats? It seems like there ought to be warnings about this, too.

This glue revelation is exactly the sort of information you get from people within an industry, especially when the information has largely escaped public attention. These are the people who deal with regulators every day. And here it was, just another in the thousands and millions of petty regulations that are squeezing the life out of the market and the civilization it built and supports—just another mandate that leads to a mess.

After he had rolled a few of these cheaper, healthier cigarettes, he put them down. I was excited to actually smoke one as a way of testing the product. I started to reach while asking, since I naturally assumed that this was surely part of the demonstration. I figured it was just like the grocery store where the cook makes a dish and the customers sample it.

“I’m sorry, I can’t let you smoke it,” he said firmly. “Federal law doesn’t allow it.”

“Huh? It is right here, right in front of me, about six inches from my fingers right there on the plate. You are telling me that if I pick that up and light it, you will have broken a federal law?”

“That’s exactly right,” he said. “I’m not allowed to distribute tobacco products. I’m only allowed to demonstrate my machine here.”

I just couldn’t believe it. I kept pressing: but this product is right here, right in front of me, and you want me to test it. I want to test it. I only need to pick it up. And yet we can’t let this happen because of some law passed a thousand miles away from here?


I’m stunned again. The laws are insane. Surely people are breaking them every day.

Then I recalled a recent study by Michael LaFaive and Todd Nesbit for the Mackinac Institute, which pointed out that “between January 2007 and 2009, 21 of the 48 contiguous states—including tobacco state North Carolina—raised their cigarette taxes, producing a total of 27 tax hikes.”

Sure enough, this tax increase has caused an explosion in cigarette smuggling. In Arizona, for example, more than half the cigs smoked there are actually smuggled in. We are also seeing a huge rise in crime: hijackings of tobacco trucks, tobacco store break-ins, muggings of people trying to deliver or take away cigarettes.

I spoke at length to the nice people at the tobacco discount store about this, and, sure enough, they had some pretty alarming tales of theft, violence, frenzy, riches, and law-breaking. The whole thing seemed like a scene out of the 1920s with speakeasies, bootleggers, and enforcement agents—complete with the tobacco equivalent of bathtub gin.

Markets will not be stopped, no matter how much force the rulers use. Look at the amazing innovation of the e-cigarette. As a piece of technology, it’s remarkable. But this innovation was probably prompted by the crackdown on the real thing. Now, of course, the regulators are after the e-cigs, too.

At the end of my visit, having heard a whole series of cockamamie stories about the derring-do world of tobacco distribution, I could only summarize by observing: “This is one crazy country.” They all readily agreed and I waved goodbye.

You might think it doesn’t matter. You don’t smoke. Well, consider this fact: Cigarettes are the single-most traded item in the world. Does it matter that government is doing this to a $400 billion industry? Absolutely. If they can drive even cigarette production to these depths, they can do it to anything.

Whether they are reading your email, listening to your phone calls, or driving you to roll your own, it’s all part of the same oppression.