This post appeared in The Hill Times on March 19, 2018
Remember Willy Horton? No, not the former Detroit Tigers baseball player, the former convicted murderer. He became famous (infamous?) in 1987 when, after he was released on a prison furlough programme, he raped a white woman and assaulted her fiance (Horton was African American for the record). The incident became a cause célèbre in the 1988 US Presidential campaign when the George Bush team used it to slam the ‘soft on crime’ position of rival Michael Dukakis, who was Governor of Massachusetts when Mr. Horton got out. Mr. Bush went on to become president. Oh well, all is fair in love and politics they say.
The same should not apply to terrorism. Last week a former Conservative cabinet minister, Diane Finley, told a parliamentary committee discussing a bill that would impose plain packaging for cigarettes that ‘contraband tobacco’ sales had financed the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (the 1993 one not 9/11). She was apparently trying to make the link between plain packaging, contraband and terrorism, although it is hard to see how she got there. It is also a valid question whom she represents in this matter. For their part, the tobacco industry claims that contraband smokes have been used by international terrorist groups but would not go so far as to make the link to the 1993 plot. Others have weighed in on this issue and made different findings.
This is a very unhelpful statement on the part of Ms. Finley. She did not appear to have a lot of evidence to back up her claim which was clearly sensational in nature. It also underscored a fundamental lack of understanding of the ties between criminal activity and terrorism.
There is little doubt that some criminal organisations do provide some funds for terrorist groups and that some groups engage in criminal activities of their own accord (and some terrorists do have criminal backgrounds). But in the majority of cases, at least in Canada – and I suspect in the US – terrorist attacks do not require large amounts of money, and certainly do not need support from criminal gangs such as those involved in cigarette contraband. These attacks are low-cost and can be carried out in part with the funds individuals or cells already have. There is no need to have a ‘sugar daddy’ to help the plot succeed.
I suspect that there is more to Ms. Finley’s passionate testimony than a desire to tie illegal cigarettes to terrorism, although I have no idea if she works for a specific lobbyist. The tobacco industry, however, is clearly against the plain packaging law and, as the industry is wont to do based on its past record (e.g. denying the harmful effects of tobacco for decades), may very well seek to scare the government into backing down. After all, is there anything scarier than terrorism? Let’s not forget though that cigarettes will kill more Canadians than terrorism ever will by several orders of magnitude.
The juxtaposition of illicit tobacco and terrorist financing is a cheap shot and one that should be sidelined. Even if there is a small connection, the benefits of plain packaging, which enjoys the support of every lobby group (well, with the exception the tobacco lobby), are far more important in lowering the numbers of people who smoke. What we do not need is scaremongering on a subject (i.e. terrorism) that is already frightening and which leads people to panic. A more level-headed debate is what is needed. Terrorist financing is an issue, albeit one that I long have felt is not as serious as others do, and should be addressed. Mixing it in with tobacco and plain packaging is the wrong way to do so.