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Cigarette Taxes Did Not Cause Eric Garner's Death

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A Staten Island grand jury has declined to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. The non-indictment has rightfully provoked outrage on twitter, among conservatives and liberals alike. But the right has also focused on what caused the police to approach Garner in the first place: New York’s cigarette taxes. Back in September, Lawrence McQuillan made this argument in the Washington Times:

[E]very vote for higher taxes gives police increased authority to exert more force on citizens in more situations. Higher excise taxes inevitably lead to more violent clashes between police and smugglers…Eliminating punitive cigarette taxes would shrink the underground market and help redirect police resources to combating real crimes of force and violence, rather than empowering police to employ violence in the name of tax collection.

Many other conservatives expressed similar sentiments after the grand jury decision was announced Wednesday:

There’s an element of truth in these statements. More laws inherently create more potentially violent confrontations between police and civilians. But by McQuillan's logic, all taxes should be eliminated because they use police resources “to employ violence in the name of tax collection.” This isn’t an argument against cigarette taxes, in other words. It’s an argument against all taxes. And 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.

I have no doubt that conservatives aren't arguing against all taxes. But their kneejerk reaction obscures the real question: Are cigarette taxes smart policy? There are benefits to the law—it reduces smoking and makes Americans healthier—and consequences to it—the costs of it fall disproportionately on the poor. There are also value judgments involved: libertarians will argue that the law is an undemocratic intrusion into the private lives of U.S. citizens. Liberals believe the health benefits of cigarette taxes outweigh any loss of freedom. That argument has been ongoing for years.

One other consequence of high cigarette taxes, as we have seen in New York City, is that they create black markets for selling cigarettes cheaply. That sets up further confrontations between police and civilians. In rare cases, those confrontations will end with someone dead. That shouldn’t have happened with Garner. He may have been resisting arrest at first but Pantaleo used a chokehold to bring him to ground. That is against police protocol. While Garner was on the ground, Pantaleo pressed his head against the cement as Garner said that he couldn’t breathe—during that time, he was not resisting arrest.

In other words, Eric Garner is not dead because New York City imposes high cigarette taxes. He’s dead because a cop put him in a chokehold, in violation of NYPD rules, and held his head against ground. To their credit, conservatives have widely denounced the grand jury’s decision. If they want to argue against cigarette taxes, though, they should make that full argument—including that the law can cause violent confrontations between police and civilians. But pointing to Garner’s death as evidence that those taxes are bad policy isn't meaningful. 

Update: Senator Rand Paul made similar comments on MSNBC.