Special Report

States Smoking the Most Smuggled Cigarettes

Tobacco consumption in America has declined consistently since the surgeon general’s office published its first report in 1965. However, more than 18% of adults still identified as smokers in 2013, and in many states, demand for tobacco is high enough to justify large-scale smuggling operations. In New York, a nation-leading 58% of the cigarette market was smuggled in 2013. The share is so high that it hardly fits the description of an underground market.

Cigarette taxes vary greatly between states, and therefore, so do cigarette prices. According to the recent Tax Foundation report, “Cigarette Taxes and Cigarette Smuggling by State, 2013,” this creates arbitrage opportunities for smugglers — that is, the profiting from asset price differences. As a result, some states have net inflows of smuggled cigarettes, while others report net outflows. Based on smuggled cigarettes consumed as a percentage of total cigarettes consumed in 2013, these are the states with the highest cigarette smuggling rates.

Click here to see the states smoking the most smuggled cigarettes

Smuggling can take a variety of forms, from casual smuggling, when individuals purchase cigarettes at a discount across state lines for personal consumption, to commercial smuggling, which could mean large-scale criminal organizations. The severity of these crimes varies considerably, and depending on state regulations, many acts of smuggling go completely unnoticed. For our purposes, cigarette smuggling is defined broadly as an avoidance of cigarette taxes.

A state’s cigarette tax is the largest contributor to the smuggling rate. The tax rate on cigarettes in all but two of the nine states where smuggling is most common exceeded the national average rate of $1.44 per pack. In New York, the tax rate is $4.35 per pack, the highest in the nation. Neighboring Vermont, Pennsylvania, as well as nearby New Hampshire, all had much lower tax rates, as well as net outflows of contraband tobacco.

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In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Scott Drenkard, economist and manager of state projects at the Tax Foundation, as well as the author of the Tax Foundation’s report, explained that in states that have much higher taxes than other states, and not very much separation geographically, the likelihood of smuggling increases dramatically. The problem, according to Drenkard, “is that we have a price prohibition on these products because we’ve taxed them at such high rates in some states.” As in the 1920s, “when you have prohibition you’re going to have bootlegging [and] you’re going to have arbitrage,” Drenkard said. “You have the same economic engines at work that create these black markets.”

In addition to the high tax rate variance between states, there is the added opportunity for smugglers to buy cigarettes in Indian reservations where tobacco is often far less expensive. New York, New Mexico, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Washington are all near Indian reservations that likely influence the smuggling rate considerably.

While smuggling cigarettes was extremely lucrative for many smugglers, large-scale or small, smoking cigarettes was relatively uncommon in all of these states. The percentage of adults who identified as smokers in 2013 exceeded the national smoking rate of 18.2% in only two of the nine states reviewed. According to Drenkard, many states have increased excise taxes in order to generate revenue and bolster failing budgets. State reserves as a percent of general fund expenditures in fiscal 2014 — also known as a rainy-day fund — did not exceed the average for the nation in seven of the nine states with the highest smuggling rates.

For Drenkard, levying such so-called “sin taxes” is extremely problematic. For one, “it makes long-term planning for your budget very difficult, [especially] if you have such a large portion of your revenue coming from an activity that you’re actively trying to discourage.” Many of these states have generated relatively large shares of revenue from a tobacco tax. In 2012, state and local tax revenues accounted for at least 2.5% of total revenue in five of the nine states. By contrast, the national average tobacco tax contribution to revenue was 2.2%.

To identify the states smuggling the most cigarettes, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed smuggled cigarettes consumed as a percent of total cigarettes consumed in 2013 from the Tax Foundation’s February 2015 report, “Cigarette Taxes and Cigarette Smuggling by State, 2013.” Only states with smuggling rates greater than 25% were considered. For the Tax Foundation, a positive percentage is a measure of inflow, while a negative percentage indicates an outflow of smuggled cigarettes. Tax rates, smuggling rates from 2006, and percentage point change data also came from the Tax Foundation. Local tax rates, state and local tax revenue figures, and tax burdens are from the Tax Policy Center and are as of the most recent period available. The percent of adults who smoked in 2013 is from the Kaiser Foundation. Rainy-day funds, or reserves as a percentage of general fund expenditures in fiscal year 2014 were provided by Pew Charitable Trusts.

These are the states selling the most contraband cigarettes.

9. Utah
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 27.3%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $1.70 (14th highest)
> Smoking rate: 10.3% (the lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 14.5 (6th highest)

More than 27% of all cigarettes consumed in Utah in 2013 were smuggled into the state, the ninth highest percentage among all states. The share of smuggled cigarettes consumed has also risen by 14.5 percentage points since 2006, the sixth largest surge nationwide. The increase is largely due to the state’s cigarette tax of $1.70 per pack, which was not only one of the highest such tax rates in 2013, but it had also increased 145% since 2006 — also one of the largest tax rate changes. As in many other states where smuggling cigarettes is common, criminals often buy cigarettes at a discounted price in nearby states and resell them in Utah. Neighboring Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming, where cigarettes are taxed at less than $1.00 per pack, all reported net outflows of smuggled cigarettes. The high cost of tobacco may also have helped discourage smoking altogether. Roughly one in 10 Utah adults were smokers in 2013, the lowest smoking rate compared to other states.

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8. Texas
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 27.4%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $1.41 (22nd highest)
> Smoking rate: 15.9% (5th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 12.6 (8th highest)

While the cigarette tax rate of $1.41 per pack in Texas was slightly lower than the national average rate of $1.44 per pack, the tax rate rose 244% between 2006 and 2013, the third highest increase nationwide. The spike may be especially shocking to Texas residents, who are perhaps more accustomed to relatively low taxes. Texas residents paid just 7.5% of their average personal income in state and local taxes in 2011, nearly the lowest nationwide. Tobacco smuggling is on the rise. More than 27% of all cigarettes consumed in the state were smuggled in 2013, up nearly 13 percentage points from 2006, a larger increase than in all but a handful of states. While Texas’ smuggling rate was among the highest in the country, the smoking rate was not especially high. Less than 16% of Texas adults smoked in 2013, one of the lowest smoking rates in the country.

7. Wisconsin
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 31.2%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $2.52 (7th highest)
> Smoking rate: 18.7% (21st lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 18.1 (3rd highest)

Cheaper cigarettes in comparatively low tobacco tax states are within reach of Wisconsin residents and businesses. Indiana and Missouri, for example, which both reported net outflows of smuggled cigarettes, and have lower tax rates, are less than a day’s drive from Wisconsin. With a 2013 cigarette tax rate of $2.52 per pack — the seventh highest rate nationwide — many people in Wisconsin likely purchase tobacco elsewhere. In 2013, more than 31% of all cigarettes consumed in Wisconsin were smuggled into the state, also the seventh highest share compared with all states. Despite the smuggling problem, however, Wisconsin’s tax revenue from tobacco grew by 115.8% between 2002 and 2012, higher than the national growth rate of 93.6%. By 2012, tobacco tax revenue accounted for more than 4% of total state revenue, the third highest proportion nationwide.

6. California
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 31.5%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $0.87 (18th lowest)
> Smoking rate: 12.5% (2nd lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): -3.1 (23rd highest)

The high frequency of cigarette smuggling did not prevent local and state tobacco tax revenues from growing substantially in most other states. California’s revenue from tobacco taxes shrank by nearly 19% between 2002 and 2012, however, nearly the largest decrease in the nation. The state’s exceptionally low cigarette tax rate of $0.87 per pack in 2013 — unchanged from 2006 — likely accounts in part for the decline in revenue. The state’s nation-leading sales tax of 7.5% is likely a greater factor contributing to smuggling opportunities. More than 31% of all cigarettes consumed in California were smuggled in 2013, the sixth highest share nationwide. Yet, Californians are among the the least likely to pick up smoking, with 12.5% of adults reporting a smoking habit, nearly the lowest smoking rate.

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5. Rhode Island
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 32.0%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $3.50 (2nd highest)
> Smoking rate: 17.4% (16th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): -11.2 (6th lowest)

In 2006, more than 43% of all cigarettes consumed in Rhode Island were smuggled into the state, the highest share nationwide at that time. By 2013, smuggling had become less common, dropping by 11.2 percentage points, one of the larger drops in the nation. The state’s cigarette tax increased by 42% over that period as well, to $3.50 per pack, the second highest such tax rate in the country. Rhode Island adults were less likely to be smokers than most Americans. Yet, 4.6% of the state’s total revenue in 2012 came from tobacco taxes, the second highest share in the country and more than double the national tobacco tax contribution of 2.2%. Smuggling cigarettes is perhaps further encouraged by Rhode Island’s sales tax rate, which at 7.0% at the beginning of 2014 was second only to California. The proximity of New Hampshire, which reported the largest net outflow of smuggled cigarettes nationwide, and does not have a sales tax, likely presents even more opportunities to bootleg tobacco.

4. New Mexico
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 46.1%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $1.66 (17th highest)
> Smoking rate: 19.1% (23rd highest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 6.2 (15th highest)

Cigarettes are smuggled primarily to dodge taxes. However, while more than 46% of all cigarettes consumed in New Mexico were smuggled into the state — the fourth highest share nationwide — the smuggling problem has not hampered tax revenue growth. New Mexico’s revenue from tobacco taxes grew by nearly 322% between 2002 and 2012, an exceptionally high rate compared to other states with smuggling problems, and the sixth highest in the country. The state’s cigarette tax of $1.66 per pack was not especially high in 2013, although it was higher than the national cigarette tax rate of $1.44. New Mexico does not border any states with net outflows of smuggled cigarettes. However, state residents can easily access nearby Indian reservations, where cigarettes are frequently sold at a steep discount.

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3. Washington
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 46.4%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $3.03 (4th highest)
> Smoking rate: 16.1% (6th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 8.2 (13th highest)

As in several other states where large shares of cigarettes were smuggled, Washington’s smuggling problem is largely regional. Many residents can easily cross state lines into Idaho, for example, where cigarettes are far less expensive. Idaho actually reported a net outflow of smuggled cigarettes in 2013, a portion of which likely ended up in Washington. Cigarettes were taxed at a rate of more than $3.00 per pack in Washington in 2013, the fourth highest such tax rate in the nation, while Idaho taxed cigarettes $0.57 per pack. The state also levies a spirits excise tax at a rate of $35.22 per gallon, the highest in the country. Washington legislators may be levying these relatively high so-called “sin taxes” to generate more revenue. The state’s reserves were estimated at 4.3% of the 2014 general fund expenditures, one of the smaller rainy day funds in the country.

2. Arizona
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 49.3%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $2.00 (9th highest)
> Smoking rate: 16.3% (8th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 17.2 (4th highest)

As in several other states with large inflows of smuggled cigarettes, most Arizona residents live near at least one major indian reservation, which often sell heavily discounted cigarettes. Even casual smuggling for personal consumption is likely appealing to state residents. State and local cigarette taxes rose 69% between 2006 and 2013 to a rate of $2.00 per pack, higher than the national cigarette tax rate of $1.44 per pack and the ninth highest nationwide. Unlike most states with high inflows of smuggled cigarettes as well as rising taxes, Arizona had a relatively large rainy-day fund. The state’s reserves equalled nearly 13% of general fund expenditures in 2014, one of the highest proportions.

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1. New York
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 58.0%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $4.35 (the highest)
> Smoking rate: 16.6% (10th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 22.2 (2nd highest)

New York State levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation at $4.35 per pack, and tobacco costs even more in certain areas. New York City charges an additional excise tax on cigarettes of $1.50, for example, bringing the total to $5.85. Between 2006 and 2013, New York’s cigarette tax rose 190%, the seventh largest rate increase in the country. State legislators are likely under pressure to raise taxes to generate revenue — the state’s reserves were equal to less than an estimated 3% of general fund expenditures last year, one of the lowest such proportions. The high cost of cigarettes in the state, together with the availability of discounted cigarettes in the nearby Oneida Indian reservation, largely account for the extremely high frequency of smuggling. In 2013, 58% of all cigarettes consumed in New York were smuggled — by far the highest such share nationwide — and up 22.2 percentage points from 2006, which was the second largest increase.

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