Cigarette smoking is at an all-time low. Tobacco products and cigarettes, in particular, have followed a trend of becoming more and more difficult to acquire. In some states, the minimum purchasing age has increased from 18 to 21, while state governments continually approve measures to increase retail prices by imposing tax hikes, sometimes of multiple dollars more per pack. Despite this, a black-market economy for individual cigarettes, known as loosies, continues, and while a harmless-seeming endeavor, like anything else, it can go horribly wrong: Just a couple of weeks ago, on February 18th, 2020, a Bronx deli worker was shot and killed after refusing to sell loosies to a customer.
Cigarettes as we know them first became popular in 1881 with the invention of the rolling machine. Since World War I, they were most often sold and distributed in cardboard packs, typically of 20. Fast forward to today and 20 cigarettes per pack has long been the legal standard. However, the sale of individual cigarettes has been a part of the informal economy for decades. Price increases have been effective as one means of cutting down on tobacco as a whole, but when it comes to loosies, the opposite seems to be the case: When cigarette prices increase, so do the sale of loosies. This is particularly true for those of low socio-economic status, and — again, just like so many things — the criminalization of loosies seems to most often impact people of color.
Selling individual cigarettes is illegal, whether a single person offers them on the street or a corner store distributes them discreetly. Critics of loosies say they’re dangerous for a number of reasons: First and foremost, loosies are often a more affordable and accessible means of smoking. In New York City, for example, rather than paying $13.50 for a pack, someone might only need 75 cents to get their nicotine fix. It’s furthermore thought that loosies are potentially more harmful in that they don’t come with the warning labels typically printed on packs, and that they normalize smoking for teens and casual smokers.
But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) likely sees loosies as a problem for a more straightforward reason: When people buy loosies, the government loses money. A representative from the Office of Media Affairs for the FDA directed me to Sections 1140.14(d) and 1140.16(b) of the Compliance With Regulations Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Cigarettes and Smokeless Tobacco to Protect Children and Adolescents guide for the tobacco industry. Here, the FDA specifies, “You may not sell individual cigarettes (often called ‘singles’ or ‘loosies’) or any package with less than 20 cigarettes, or any quantity of cigarette tobacco or smokeless tobacco that is smaller than the smallest package distributed by the manufacturer for individual consumer use,” as they’re “generally cheaper” and “may entice children and adolescents to try using these products.”
There is indeed evidence that higher tobacco costs reduce youth smoking beyond experimentation, but loosie cigarette sales and selling tobacco to minors are two different crimes. Further, while higher tobacco costs have also been linked to decreased smoking rates overall, loosie cigarettes have, too: Because people who smoke loosies only have one cigarette at a time, they often use the practice to decrease their smoking or quit entirely.
Exacerbating the problem for the FDA, however, is that in addition to loosie sales being illegal, the loosies being sold are often illegally transported from low-tax states. In a study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers studied smokers from the South Bronx in New York City and found that 80 percent of adult smokers in the area purchased individual cigarettes. Moreover, 60 percent of participants regularly purchased packs of cigarettes stamped from Virginia, meaning they were illegally bootlegged from Virginia to NYC to avoid the city’s higher sales tax.
In most cases, 50 cents per loosie was the norm, making the price per cigarette cheaper than if an individual bought a legal pack, often by around $3 per pack. As such, the majority of loosies are thought to be from these bootlegged, out-of-state packs of cigarettes — meaning, the state of New York misses out on the $4.35 they charge in tax revenue they could have procured had each of those loosies been a legal pack, and an additional $1.50 for those in New York City.
Naturally, governments don’t like losing money in this way, and it can result in a wildly disproportionate response from law enforcement. The murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 is one of the many consequences of New York’s enforcement of loosie laws: As Lawrence J. McQuillan wrote for The Washington Times following Garner’s death, Garner was killed by police officers, who held him in a fatal chokehold for selling loosie cigarettes at a time when cigarette smuggling had recently increased by nearly 60 percent.
“More than half of all cigarettes consumed in New York state are smuggled, according to a 2014 report by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,” McQuillian writes. “Garner chose to participate in the booming underground cigarette market as a smuggler… In January 2014, tough new penalties for selling untaxed cigarettes took effect in New York City. In July, emboldened by the new law, the city’s highest-ranking uniformed cop, Philip Banks, issued an order to crack down on loosie sales days before Garner died.”
Since Garner’s death, loosie arrests have decreased in NYC by nearly a third. But like the War on Drugs and the recent criminalization of street vendors in New York City more broadly, tobacco laws still disproportionately impact people of color and low-income communities, although notably, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people consume less tobacco than any other race.
More largely, even with the decline in smoking, the market for loosies is still there. Despite the financial and health costs, people will continue to smoke, and despite the prevalence of the Juul and other vapes, cigarettes are still over four times more popular than their alternatives. If anything, as the burden of smoking increases, the sales of loosies will only grow.