Eric Garner death: Did cigarette taxes play a part?

  • 5 December 2014
Cigarettes on display at a New York city store.

According to a coroner's report, Eric Garner died due to "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint" as he was wrestled to the ground by Daniel Pantaleo and fellow New York City police officers.

On Wednesday a grand jury, presented with the report and a video of the entire incident, declined to indict Mr Pantaleo on charges related to Garner's death. The move, coming on the heels of a similar grand jury decision in a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, has prompted two nights of massive protests in New York and widespread outrage in the media over alleged police brutality.

For some, however, another party bears some responsibility in Garner's death - an out-of-control nanny-state government attempting to enforce a prohibition on the sale of untaxed cigarettes.

"For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it," Kentucky Senator Paul said on MSNBC Wednesday night. "But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws."

Reason magazine's A Barton Hinkle explains how New York's high state and city cigarette taxes - totalling $5.95 a pack - have created a thriving black market on the city's streets.

"A pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more," he writes. "That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. Fill a Ford Econoline van with a few hundred cartons, and you can make a nice five-figure profit in a weekend. Some people do."

It was participation in this underground economy that brought Garner to police attention and, according to Mr Paul's logic, ultimately led to his death.

Politicians passed the taxes, he said, and politicians told police: "Hey, we want you arresting people for selling loose cigarettes."

Mr Paul isn't alone in these views, either.

"We have a poor guy who died because of a tax collection issue," conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show.

Governments condemn cigarette use on one hand while relying on cigarette taxes to fund their operations, Mr Limbaugh and others contend.

"Garner died because he dared interfere with government reach and government muscle that didn't want to lose tax revenue to independent operators," Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass writes.

Image caption Senator Rand Paul says bad laws, like New York City's high cigarette tax, put police in difficult situations

"You want an all-encompassing state with the power to stop you from smoking? Well, don't complain about the Eric Garner case," writes the Hayride's Scott McKay. "This is what big government looks like."

The Daily Caller's W James Antle says that while public outrage is focusing on the level of force employed by the New York police, "let's not let the people who write the laws off the hook".

"A man who is killed by government overreach, fueled by anti-tobacco fanaticism, is just as dead as one who smokes a carton of unfiltered Pall Malls every week for 30 years," he writes.

"You want an all-encompassing state with the power to stop you from smoking?" writes the Hayride's Scott McKay. "Well, don't complain about the Eric Garner case. This is what big government looks like."

It's Mr Paul's comments, however, that have attracted the lion's share of reaction - and condemnation - thanks to his position in the upper tier of Republican 2016 presidential prospects.

"Well I guess now we know what it takes to get a senator from Kentucky to admit cigarettes can kill," comedian Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show. "I appreciate the purity of your anti-tax dogma, but the cigarette tax is truly the least salient aspect of this case."

"Eric Garner could've been out there with mix tapes or a squeegee or a snow cone, and the same kind of s--t could have happened," he continued.

Salon's Joan Walsh says Mr Paul's comments are "a huge part of why he will never be president".

"What kind of callousness is required to say the 'bigger' issue in Garner's death isn't excessive police use of force, or police practice toward African-Americans generally, but … taxes?" she asks.

"I'm not sure I can think of a case of a cop shooting anyone over selling something without charging/paying taxes, ever, in my lifetime," she continues. "On the other hand, there is a very real issue of police using excessive force against African-Americans."

There's an "element of truth" in the conservative statements about the cigarette tax, writes Danny Vinik in the New Republic. "More laws inherently create more potentially violent confrontations between police and civilians."

The solution isn't to do away with cigarette taxes - or, by the same logic, any and all taxes.

"You can't have a society with no taxes unless you want a society with no government services - including the most basic public duties, such as police, that even conservatives support," he says.

Liberals act shocked and surprised by the cigarette tax argument, although it was being advanced months before this week's grand jury decision gave it extra prominence and bite.

When you view government as incompetent at best and evil at worst, any expansion of it will inevitably lead to bad results. As Ronald Reagan famously said: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help'."

The difference now, however, seems to be a growing view on the right that the police, rather than protectors of civil society, are the jackbooted heel of an oppressive government.

That's something Ronald Reagan never would have said.