Illegal cigarettes are a problem in Tarrant County. More tobacco taxes will make it worse

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After Halloween, families breathed a sigh of relief that candy buckets across the community were not laced with rainbow fentanyl, as many had feared. And while there were no reports of trick or treaters bringing home these dangerous drugs in their bags, the truth is that the substance still threatens Tarrant County and North Texas.

In early October, Fort Worth police said they arrested two men and seized 28,000 fentanyl pills, 10 guns and more than $100,000 in cash in an undercover drug buy last week. Clearly, our community must remain vigilant in standing against this threat.

But with rainbow fentanyl grabbing many of the headlines, it can be easy to forget about another highly profitable illicit market that helps fund criminal industries and helps advance even more harmful products from entering our communities: illicit cigarettes.

Our state is no stranger to international smuggling. From guns and drugs to counterfeit merchandise, cartels and violent gangs are fueling their criminal enterprises through these harmful cross-border activities. But as the Houston Chronicle recently highlighted, large-scale smuggling of illegal cigarettes — especially those from China — makes tobacco among the most profitable cash crops that powers a multibillion-dollar illicit market.

Simply put, the smuggling of counterfeit, unregulated cigarettes into higher-tax jurisdictions funds more crime throughout Texas and in communities across Tarrant County.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, What’s a few loose cigarettes? Surely it can’t be that big of a problem here.” That could not be further from the truth. A 2015 State Department report titled “The Global Illicit Trade in Tobacco: A Threat to National Security,” called cigarette smuggling a “low-risk, high-reward criminal activity” that “is a lucrative crime for some terrorist groups and a potential revenue source to finance acts of terror.”

So how will America — and Tarrant County — combat this ongoing threat?

Sadly, a proposed solution in Congress is insufficient and has the potential to do more harm than good. Proponents of the legislation say that the higher taxes will help put an end to smoking while at the same time promote public health. But the reality is higher taxes won’t lead all smokers to quit, and they will force some buyers out of stores and onto the streets, into the waiting arms of illicit cigarette dealers eager to fill their coffers with money to fund more illegal activity.

Federal, and local legislation that is designed to significantly raise excise taxes on all tobacco products can add strain on law enforcement departments that are already stretched thin. And with no notable significant public health benefits, this solution is inadequate for communities and law enforcement alike.

What’s more, recent data from the Mackinac Center shows that cigarette tax avoidance and evasion in Texas has resulted in the fourth-highest loss of revenue among the states, with an estimated loss of more than $300 million in tax dollars. Adding insult to injury, to say the least.

While the legislation is an insufficient solution, the good news is that there are emerging strategies to address the public-health crisis arising from tobacco use and, at the same time, help combat the illicit cigarette market. The leading idea is to promote education and resources in strategies such as Tobacco Harm Reduction.

It’s a growing, scientifically supported movement that promotes public health and community benefits by providing tobacco smokers access to education and information on potentially less harmful nicotine products and provides a pathway to freedom from these products. This approach also helps guide smokers to safer alternatives and away from entering into the dangerous illicit market.

Serving our community as sheriff is a great honor, and the dedicated individuals on our team work hard to keep dangerous criminals out of our communities. Let’s move forward with solutions that actually work to help people stop using tobacco products and keep our community safer and healthier.

Bill E. Waybourn has served as Tarrant County sheriff since 2017 and has nearly four decades of experience in law enforcement in Texas.