Biden's Cigarette Crackdown a Boon for Drug Dealers, Experts Warn

Move to lower nicotine levels could put farmers in jeopardy

A man smokes and wears a wig at the Cafe Mambo Ibiza concert at Castle Howard on August 20, 2021, in York, England. / Getty Images
June 20, 2022

A new Biden administration effort to regulate cigarettes will bankroll street gangs and bankrupt U.S. tobacco farmers, experts say.

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing this month to require lower nicotine content in all cigarettes—a move critics argue will wreck the $75 billion U.S. tobacco industry amid a global economic crisis and boost a black market as crime spikes nationwide. The news comes weeks after the agency announced its plans to ban menthol cigarettes, which will cost federal and local governments an estimated $6.6 billion in the first year alone.

Richard Marianos, a 27-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, said these regulations will shift the demand for cigarettes toward unregulated tobacco grown internationally, which is then purchased and sold by drug dealers.

"The problem again with this administration is they do not take into consideration a totality of subject matter experts," Marianos told the Washington Free Beacon. "I've never seen this much foolishness in my life."

Marianos, who worked on gang violence at the ATF, said the black market for cigarettes is dominated by street gangs and would grow at least a hundredfold after the FDA implements its nicotine decision. He claims one of his former informants discovered some dealers make $5,000 selling cigarettes in a single afternoon. The FDA's "uneducated and silly" cigarette plan, he said, would require law enforcement to focus on tobacco sales rather than drugs and violent crime.

The FDA's cigarette regulations are a part of the Biden administration's larger "harm reduction" strategy that enables illicit drug use while criminalizing tobacco. The Free Beacon reported in February that the Department of Health and Human Services was set to fund the distribution of crack pipes through a $30 million harm reduction program, which according to the New York Times sparked an "uproar" that "derailed" the agency's entire drug policy.

"This is not tobacco harm reduction at all," Marianos told the Free Beacon. "Who do you think the kids are going to be buying from now? The crooks. What are they going to be smoking now? Counterfeit, unregulated products. What do you think they'll be smoking more than cigarettes now? Marijuana."

The FDA's menthol ban aims to reduce smoking in black communities. The agency claims that a reduction of nicotine in cigarettes will help smokers quit, but critics say it could instead lead smokers to inhale more tobacco to get their usual level of nicotine.

"If I have to drink a 1.2 percent level alcohol by volume, I'm going to drink more beer to get the same level of buzz," Graham Boyd, executive director of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, told the Free Beacon.

The tobacco plant can be genetically modified to alter nicotine levels. Last year, the FDA for the first time permitted a company to advertise that its cigarettes contain low levels of nicotine. It is unclear what level of nicotine reduction the FDA will require in its new regulations. A spokeswoman for the agency told the Free Beacon she "can't provide any information at this time."

Boyd said the FDA did not allow his group, one of the largest tobacco farmer associations in the country, to testify during the agency's hearings on reduced nicotine. He said the new regulations could raise several concerns for tobacco farmers: Are most U.S. farmers capable of growing tobacco with the required nicotine reduction? Are there legal consequences? Will international farmers be held to the same standards?

"You don't want to create widespread economic harm in the name of public health," Boyd told the Free Beacon. "The government should not be in the business of putting people out of business."

Altria, the second-largest tobacco company in the country, told the Free Beacon it will not release a statement until the FDA decision is official. The company pointed to its previous positions, however, that state significant nicotine reduction "would be a de facto ban of all cigarettes" and a violation of federal law.

The company has said that a reduction in nicotine could cause the tobacco industry to lose an estimated 951,000 jobs and 45,000 businesses.