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Top-Secret Smoking: Tobacco, Terrorism and Big Government

Today the Washington Post launched a much-anticipated website called Top Secret America. It’s the culmination of over two years of research into the vast network of secret government agencies and private contractors set up post-9/11 to clandestinely track all aspects of American society and the world at large.

We immediately did a search on tobacco and were relieved to find just one result, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Apparently there are no classified black-ops teams working to make tobacco and smoking illegal (though it sometimes feels like it.)

The ATF has 182 locations and approximately 5,000 personnel. About half the staff are armed special federal agents, given some of the most sweeping authority in the government to enforce any statute in the United States Code. Their annual budget is around $1 billion.

Overall, the ATF has a somewhat negative reputation, primarily because of their catastrophic raids at Ruby Ridge and Waco. They’re also eyed closely by Constitutionalists, worried about the organization’s power to suspend the right to bear arms at its discretion. But it’s their regulation of tobacco we’re most concerned with on this blog, and there is one angle in particular that piques our interest that is directly related to Homeland Security.

One of the ‘featured stories’ on the ATF’s website is “Tobacco: The New Commodity for Criminals”. The organization estimates that $5 billion in tax revenue is lost each year to cigarette smugglers. What’s more, these black market profits are used to fund crime rings and terrorism — referred to by some as the “tobacco underground“.

It’s quite obvious to us that recent increases in tobacco taxes will only exacerbate the smuggling problem. Here in New York, we have the country’s highest tobacco tax. The Virginia state line is just a quick 4½ hour drive from New York city, and that state has some of the country’s lowest tobacco taxes. An organized team of traffickers could make hundreds of thousands of low-risk dollars in a single smuggling run, simply for transporting cigarettes and fencing them through black-market distributors.

None of this is bombshell material, and the Top Secret America site doesn’t really give us any information that’s not already publicly available. The message here is more related to the emergence of a counterterorrism-industrial complex that, among other things, is extremely expensive for American taxpayers. It’s also about Big Brother and the nanny state, which like America’s waistline just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Cigar smokers are probably more in tune to this erosion of freedom than most, with our hobby and pastime being outlawed and taxed to ridiculous new levels. Could we soon see cigar smuggling as a new addition to the black market? It’s unlikely given the relatively small number of cigar smokers in the U.S. The availability of Cuban cigars smuggled into America are testament to the fact that stogies are not high up on the ATF’s priority list.

As a luxury item, cigars are directly threatened by the war on our wallets that the government is waging. With their vast networks of redundant and wasteful top-secret organizations, taxes keep rising to fund the ever-growing bills issued in the name of ‘keeping America safe’. Lately, it seems, the government has become too concerned with keeping us safe from ourselves. We recommend you join the fight for the freedom to smoke at the Cigar Rights of America site, and start eying the bigger picture — especially this new “fourth branch” of the government that lies in the shadows.