The Putin administration has found a new enemy to add to its list of globalists, human rights advocates, the European Union and the Islamic State: tobacco.
More than 30 percent of Russian adults smoke, which is apparently so objectionable to a government reviled for human rights abuses and attacks on press freedom that total tobacco prohibition may now be on the cards.
According to The Times, Russia’s health ministry is considering banning cigarettes for anyone born after 2015. “This goal is absolutely ideologically correct,” said Nikolai Gerasimenko, a member of the Russian parliament’s health committee, in a chilling statement reminiscent of Soviet era proclamations.
The proposal sparked immediate criticism, with Elena Topoleva-Soldunova, a member of the Russian public chamber, warning “counterfeit tobacco could lead to even more harm to people’s health.”
Not only would counterfeit tobacco be even more disastrous for people’s health than regular tobacco, but it would deliver vast profits into the hands of organized crime and terrorism.
With such a high smoking prevalence, Russia would prove a golden opportunity for criminals looking to cash in on a black market that would be close to impossible to shut down, given the ease with which tobacco can be transported and concealed.
This vast black market would not just enrich Russian gangsters, but could prove a security threat to both Europe and the United States. According to a State Department report published in 2015, tobacco smuggling represents a “low-risk, high-reward” source of funding for terrorist groups.
Profits from black market tobacco have benefitted the Islamic State, Al-Nusra, Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-E-Taiba, al Qaeda in Maghreb, the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and FARC in Colombia, according to France’s Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism accounting for as much as 20 percent of their total funding.
The role of illicit tobacco in terrorism was impressed on the public by the activities of the semi-legendary Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a commander of al Qaeda in Maghreb, who has so far evaded capture and been nicknamed “Mr. Marlboro” in reference to his tobacco smuggling.
Amedy Coulibaly, the man who brutally killed four people in a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, was also identified by CAT as a participant in Paris’s black market tobacco scene.
Russia’s flirtation with tobacco prohibition may be music to the ears of the most militant anti-smokers, but it would also be a gift to some of the world’s most violent organizations who have managed to turn tobacco control policies, such as punitively high taxes, into lucrative sources of funding.
Guy Bentley is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a consumer freedom research associate at the Reason Foundation and was previously a reporter for the Daily Caller.