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Clure: Mexican tobacco cartels seek to gain from prohibitionist tobacco policies


Despite record-high temperatures, illegal crossings on the Southern border spiked in July, particularly in Arizona where the Tucson sector saw 40,000 arrests, the highest one-month total in 15 years. The lack of a secure border means drugs like fentanyl are continuing to flood into our communities. It's critical the Biden administration finds a renewed sense of urgency in combating the smuggling of illegal substances and ensuring future policies don’t add to the problem. 

At a recent checkpoint traffic stop in Arizona, a border patrol K-9 unit discovered more than $2 million worth of fentanyl. Approximately 192 pounds were seized after being driven across the border, enough to kill 48 million people and more than the entire amount seized by border patrol in 2022. 

While this intervention likely saved lives, cartels continue successfully trafficking illicit products across the border. The Biden administration has urged Congress to pass the bipartisan, yet controversial HALT Fentanyl Act that would classify all fentanyl-related substances as schedule 1. But, this bill remains stalled in the Senate where a vote remains uncertain as lawmakers continue to split on the legislation. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has remained full steam ahead on new regulatory action for tobacco products that could exacerbate concerns with cartels and break open a new revenue source to fund the smuggling of harder drugs. A federal menthol ban and a Very Low Nicotine (VLN) rule have both been proposed by the Biden administration and could see implementation this year through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Both rules effectively ban the sale of cigarettes as we currently know them. While a menthol ban would eliminate a broad category of cigarettes, the VLN rule would drastically reduce the nicotine content allowed in cigarettes, likely forcing them off the market.

These actions would leave a massive gap in demand, forcing many smokers to the illicit market where a spike in consumers would give existing cartels a huge financial opportunity. After the legalization of marijuana in many states, Mexican cartels have been working to find additional revenue streams to support their efforts in trafficking hard drugs. 

Just as Americans witnessed during the prohibition era, outright bans are largely ineffective at keeping long-used products out of the hands of consumers. Bad actors will continue to find ways around the new policies, and in the case of tobacco, cartels will ramp up production of black market cigarettes and use their new profits to keep dangerous substances like fentanyl flowing into the U.S. By making these products illegal, it will place greater responsibilities on already severely understaffed law enforcement agencies and potentially create increased policing of communities that already feel they are “over” policed. Tobacco should not be turned into a law enforcement issue, it is, and should remain a public health issue.

In fact, several U.S. Senators in the last few months called on Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to sanction Tobacco International Holdings (TIH), a Switzerland-registered business that they suspect has a direct relationship with a Mexican cartel that’s already been sanctioned for its role in trafficking narcotics and fentanyl. This cartel is known as the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), and in the letter to Secretary Yellen was said to have used corrupt and violent means to monopolize the tobacco market in several Mexican states in an effort to establish a new revenue stream. 

Given this cartel's history of drug smuggling into the US, it’s critical the Biden administration does not add more fuel to the flames and forgoes a blanket ban on cigarette products. Arizona is no stranger to the impact hard drugs are having on families across the country, with data showing fentanyl only played a part in 13 percent of overdose deaths in 2017 and by 2022 spiked to 65 percent in Arizona.

Destroying the legal market for cigarettes in the US could add to these deaths by vastly expanding the illicit tobacco operations of cartels, subsequently boosting revenues that will support the more profitable smuggling of narcotics. Additionally, without legal standards, illicit cigarettes would be far more dangerous for human consumption without regulations guiding their production and distribution.

A menthol ban and VLN rule would prove devastating for public health and further exacerbate our border crisis. I hope our Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ) will advocate against these regulations and encourage this administration to find other solutions to encourage smokers to quit, such as approving harm reduction alternatives. Prohibition policies play right into the hands of Mexican cartels that would love to see an illicit tobacco market that helps push more drugs onto our streets.

Joe Clure is the Executive Director of the Arizona Police Association and former president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.