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?