The White House says an imminent new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule banning menthol cigarettes will save lives. Critics, however, say it could cost lives by padding the pockets of terrorists.
“Despite the extent of cigarette smuggling and the use of illicit profits to fuel criminal enterprises, it does not appear any U.S. government agency has considered the threat of this FDA proposal on American security, let alone developed a mitigation plan,” Reps. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.) and Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday.
“It would be concerning to move forward with this rule without considering the potential for foreign terrorist and criminal organizations, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, to generate revenue and fuel their operations in the wake of a ban on menthol cigarettes,” the two congressmen added.
Hezbollah is known for its profitable tobacco smuggling operations in South America. The congressmen referred to the threat that a looming ban could aid terrorists as “potential unintended national security consequences.”
Menthol, which can be produced in a lab, “is a chemical compound found naturally in peppermint and other similar plants,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Menthol can change the way the brain registers the sensations of taste and pain. In cigarettes, menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat and airways, making the smoke feel less harsh and easier to inhale.”
The CDC added that menthol can make cigarettes more addictive and that menthol-flavored cigarettes made up 37% of U.S. cigarette sales in 2021, compared to 16% in 1963, when tobacco companies were first required to report data to the federal government.
The congressmen’s fear is that banning menthol cigarettes in the United States will open up a new black market, and Hezbollah, with smuggling infrastructure already in place, will assume a leading role in that illegal trade. It will then turn its profits over to its terror base in Lebanon—profits that could be enormous, given that the regulated menthol market in the United States is valued at about $30 billion.
“It is well-documented that Hezbollah is a leader in the illicit cigarette trade—not halfway around the world but right here in the Western Hemisphere,” the congressmen wrote. “There have been cases in which Hezbollah and Hamas cells have smuggled cigarettes into the United States to send the revenue overseas. Given Hezbollah’s established cigarette business and its ties to the Mexican drug cartels, we cannot discount the potential for this FDA-proposed rule to open a massive revenue stream for this Hamas-allied foreign terrorist organization.”
‘One of main conduits for money laundering’
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is an expert on Hezbollah’s illicit threat networks in Latin America and Iranian history of sanctions evasion. He told JNS that the main concern should be Hezbollah’s money laundering, not its smuggling operation.
“When it comes to these products, smuggling into the United States is handled mainly by the cartels. But Hezbollah is one of the main conduits for money laundering of illicit financial streams across Latin America and has a long history of providing that service to cartels, including Mexican cartels,” Ottolenghi said.
He said the smuggling of banned cigarettes and cigars is likely to be handled by the cartels’ local networks, with the proceeds sent “to members of the Lebanese diaspora, who launder it through Latin America and West African networks that are controlled and managed by a Hezbollah facilitator.”
In late October, the FDA sent final rules on banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, which is a key regulatory step. Public health experts have said that such a ban could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Several advocacy groups are pushing the OMB to act expeditiously, so the final regulations can be issued by year’s end. The FDA has explored a menthol ban for more than a decade.
“In the wake of Oct. 7, all of our policy assumptions need a reset and review to make sure we are defending the homeland from Iran-backed terrorism,” Rich Goldberg, a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.
‘The opposite effect of what they want’
Washington has paid scant attention to Hezbollah’s funding from illicit drug sources in South America since the Obama administration shut down Project Cassandra, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration effort to undercut that funding, as it pursued diplomacy with Iran.
“On the broader issue of Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America, I think that for quite some time it has been pretty much under the radar,” Ottolenghi said. “Ever since Project Cassandra was essentially shut down, the number of investigations and prosecutions into illicit finance, money laundering and drug trafficking activities linked to Hezbollah has dramatically dropped.”
The two congressmen urged the administration, while it “lends support to Israel and works to defeat terrorism,” to pause the rule and “potential Hezbollah-financing scheme until Congress can get answers from the administration on its national security implications.”
The FDA ban would “likely have the opposite effect of what they want,” Ottolenghi said. “Instead of curbing, the consumption will increase and illicit production and smuggling will, in some ways, benefit Hezbollah.”
Once the cartels prop up their operation, “that revenue will have to be laundered,” he added. “It’s very likely that a significant part of that money will go through Hezbollah channels.”