Motueka’s (Very) Grey Market in Tobacco

This story of a Motueka tobacco farmer (hit tip: hefevice) makes me want to take up smoking again so I can buy this guy’s wares. Despite being raided and dragged through the courts, Laurie Jury is maintaining there is nothing illegal about what he’s doing: selling dried, unprocessed tobacco leaf, he says, is not the same thing as producing tobacco.

To him, his continued high-profile involvement in tobacco growing, as probably the last self-acknowledged commercial grower in the country, is nothing more than a small farmer growing a small crop of a plant he knows well and sees an opening in the market for.

The small fact that his determination to stick with tobacco has seen him fall foul of the authorities twice now in five years, the second time involving a raid by armed police on his Pangatotara home last week, only hardens his resolve.

The Customs officers who arrived at his place in the wake of the Armed Offenders Squad came with a search warrant that suggested Mr Jury was a suspect in a range of offences, including helping defraud Customs of revenue.

They took all the leaf he had stored in his shed – he won’t say how much, but one report said it was about two tonnes – and a bunch of other stuff, including $4000 in cash, but he is confident they didn’t take anything that is going to land him a conviction.

The last time they tried, as he likes to point out, their case all but collapsed and they had to return the tobacco they had seized.

His argument is that there is no law against growing tobacco and, as far as he has always understood it, nothing in the law to stop him from selling the raw, dried leaf.

So that is what he does, as he freely admits. Buyers, he says, range from passers-by in camper vans who have seen his roadside crop and want some leaves as a “souvenir”, to customers in the North Island.

To be honest, I don’t like his chances of surviving in the long term. The law may not currently prohibit his business, but law is always open to interpretation or change. Public and elite opinion is swinging violently against tobacco, and courts are responsive to public opinion.

The most disturbing part of the story is the way recent raids were conducted:

The memory of [the prior court case] also meant he wasn’t exactly floored by the events of Tuesday last week, which started with being woken before 6am by the sound of his partner, Michelle’s, dog, Diesel, barking ferociously at the end of their driveway.

He grabbed a spotlight to investigate, shining it on to the road frontage, where the dog was “nutting off”, charging up and down the fenceline.

Mr Jury could see nothing, but seconds later, his phone rang, the voice on the other end advising that the police – armed police – were outside his property to help Customs execute a search warrant, ordering him to turn off the spotlight, get dressed and go outside with his hands up.

As he describes what happened over the next few minutes, it is clear the police weren’t mucking around. Armed Offenders Squad officers had stationed themselves along the road, on his property and on the stopbank across the highway. He says he counted at least 10 blue laser sights on rifles being pointed in his direction.

He was shouted at, ordered down to the road frontage to be greeted by snarling police dogs, handcuffed and loaded into a car.

That’s pretty standard practice in the States, but armed cops are the exception rather than the rule here in New Zealand. Armed raids makes the image of a war on tobacco much more vivid.

Tobacco Taxes

So, the New Zealand government has voted 118-4 to increase the sin tax on tobacco.  The funny thing is, the move was led by the Maori party, whose supporters contain a disproportionate number of smokers who probably don’t want a tax increase, and supported by the centre-right National party, who campaigned on an anti-nanny state platform.  I’m with Eric on this:

You know who I really feel bad for? The folks who voted National thinking they’d get less nanny-state as consequence. And, worse, the folks who campaigned for them on that basis. Think harder about it next time, guys.

While I know most politicians don’t feel the need to justify the passing of laws, surely there must be some among those 118 who think that there should be some sort of reason.

Do we need to increase tobacco taxes to pay for the costs of smoking on the health system? Nope: smokers pay more than their share. On that basis, we’d decrease the excise tax considerably.

Does ignorance among smokers as to the true health costs of smoking undermine the welfare-maximising tendency of free choice, meaning we need to force people to do what they’d do given full information. Nope. Even if you think ignorance justifies coercion, the fact is that people radically overestimate the health risks of smoking. If we wanted to encourage people to make the decisions they’d make if they were fully informed, we’d subsidize tobacco.

The real reason for increasing the excise tax on tobacco is a combination of arrogant paternalism and bigotry. Turia and Key think they know what’s best for you better than you do yourself and see smokers as disgusting deviants who must be punished. As Joseph Gusfield (writing about alcohol) says:

As his own claim to social respect and honor are diminished, the sober, abstaining citizen seeks for public acts through which he may reaffirm the dominance and prestige of his way of life. Converting the sinner to virtue is one way; law is another.

Anyone in favour of the increase care to offer another explanation?

This Week in Moral Panic

A few stories from New Zealand over the past few days:

Cheap smokes!

“I’m bloody horrified, but not surprised at their tactics,” [Maori Party MP Hone Harawira] said. “There’s now overwhelming support from New Zealanders to get rid of tobacco in this country and companies are doing their best to hook as many people as possible now, so they’re lowering prices and upping nicotine and marketing into places like Aranui and Otara.”

“What they are doing is maximising their profit before their demise and they don’t care that they’re killing New Zealanders to achieve it,” he said.

Gangs!

Local government leaders are seeking a law change to allow other councils to follow Whanganui’s lead and ban gang patches.

Whanganui was given the right to pass a bylaw last year banning all gang insignia except tattoos from public places, but other councils wanting to do the same must get their own enabling law through Parliament.

Party pills!

Police and customs officials are worried a party drug linked to the deaths of two teenagers in Britain is now circulating in New Zealand.

It is feared the banned drug mephedrone, also known as M-cat, meow and plant food, is growing in popularity as a substitute for ecstasy. (…)

Although no cases have turned up at hospital emergency departments as yet, potential side effects of the drug range from vomitting, nausea and nose bleeds, right through to hallucinations, fits, paranoia, anxiety and depression.

The long-term side effects are still not known.

Child sexualization!

“It is time to confront the issue of ‘corporate pedophilia’ and the ‘raunch culture’ which is harming the self-esteem, body image and academic performance of our young people,” says Mr McCoskrie.

Gambling!

The findings were clear – every additional pokie machine in a community results in .8 new problem gamblers. Further, there is no evidence that this plateaus.

Graeme Ramsey, Problem Gambling Foundation CEO, says research such as this should inform gambling policy.

Stand by for regulation.

Healthists Say the Darndest Things

From the comments on this post on the dangers of third-hand smoke (bollocks):

Smokers should have to urinate in a separate system or something so as not to pollute the earth and harm others.

Hat tip: Chris Snowdon.

The Key Speech

John Key’s speech to parliament today hardly signalled the commitment to reform he has been talking up. Summaries of the speech here and here, with commentary with which I largely agree here.

There’s unlikely to be much in the way of tax reform.  With only the possibility of a 2.5% increase in GST, probably some minor tinkering with depreciation rules, and no indication of spending cuts, there could only be very minor reductions to income and corporate tax rates.  The rejection of the introduction of new taxes, notably on land, is good, though for public choice rather than public finance reasons. There was some empty rhetoric about welfare reform, but major changes to the god-awful Working for Families were ruled out.

One thing really pissed me off though: the suggestion of unspecified reforms to liquor licensing rules to address the Problem of Binge Drinking. This means that beer is likely to get more expensive and less conveniently available so the government seems like they’re doing something. Not cool, John.

Tobacco Prohibition

Apparently, almost half of New Zealand want to ban smoking completely:

The 2008 Health and Lifestyles Survey compiled nationwide interviews from the Health Sponsorship Council of 1608 people, including 422 smokers, and has just been published in the NZ Medical Journal.

It found 49.8 per cent of people agreed cigarettes should no longer be sold in New Zealand in 10 years, 30.3 per cent disagreed and 19.9 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed. Of the smokers surveyed, 26.2 per cent agreed and 55.3 per cent disagreed. The study also showed public support for plain, unbranded cigarette packets and fewer tobacco retailers. …

One of the study’s authors, Dr George Thomson, from Otago University, Wellington, called on the Government to take action.

“There’s now a need for politicians to embrace and act on the idea of a foreseeable and planned end to tobacco sales through a predicable timetable by 2020. The public wants more defined action to reduce smoking, and not a series of incremental steps.”

I can’t find much information on the survey from a quick googling, but I strongly suspect they asked the prohibition question in a leading way, with a variety of anti-smoking priming questions beforehand.  The other surveys they’ve conducted don’t seem particularly neutral. My worry is that misleading survey results like this could trigger anavailability cascade which makes people more likely to express support for prohibition.

Of course, I could be completely wrong: maybe half of  New Zealand really is that meddlesome.

In other news, I’ve switched to electronic cigarettes, which are a very good hedonic substitute for smoking, and much, much safer than smoking. (I bought from vapor4life, by the way, who have provided excellent product and service so far.)

If government tobacco policy was aimed at reducing the harm caused by smoking, the government would immediately redirect all tobacco control funding to promoting and subsidising e-cigs. This would be more effective and less harmful than spending money telling smokers they smell and that nobody wants to have sex with them. Unfortunately,healthists seem to think consuming nicotine is sinful. Tobacco control is less about helping people than it is aboutsignalling disapproval of those with different preferences.

BrewDog Launches 32% ABV Beer

BrewDog, the Scottish brewing company behind the 18.2% ABV Tokyo* and the low alcohol Nanny State have revealed their newest brew: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, weighing in at a mighty 32% alcohol!

Managing director James Watt said a limited supply of Tactical Nuclear Penguin would be sold for £30 each.

He said: “This beer is about pushing the boundaries, it is about taking innovation in beer to a whole new level.”

Mr Watt added that a beer such as Tactical Nuclear Penguin should be drunk in “spirit sized measures”.

A warning on the label states: “This is an extremely strong beer; it should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.”

Want! Predictably, the wowsers aren’t too pleased about it:

However Jack Law, of Alcohol Focus Scotland, described it was a “cynical marketing ploy” and said: “We want to know why a brewer would produce a beer almost as strong as whisky.”

(Hat tip: @epicbeer)

Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

Having it Both Ways

From p. 396 of Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess:

Yet the strangest situation of all had been rendered legal by a decision of the Supreme Court. The Court had ruled that the Bureau of Internal Revenue had the right to request income-tax returns from bootleggers. The Court saw no reason “why the fact that a business is unlawful should exempt it from paying the tax that if lawful it would have to pay.” In the argument of the case, it was even suggested that bribes paid to government officials might be held deductible as business expenses. To this day [1962], the bootleggers of the last dry state in the Union, Mississippi, pay federal income tax and a state tax on their illegal profits.

 

The Best Sentence I Read Today

When Wheeler publicly praised the insertion of poison into industrial alcohol on the theory that those who drank it were committing deliberate suicide, he did not persuade others of the humanitarian aims of the League.

Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess, p. 336. Poison is still added to some industrial alcohol, of course.

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