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I Love 'Loosies': In Defense of Black Market Cigarettes

04/06/2011 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011

Despite New York's crusade against smoking, there are still bodegas that sell "loosies" -- as single cigarettes illegally sold for about 50 cents are commonly called -- and eight-dollar packs. The owners make a profit 'forgetting' to charge the state tax -- a trick not lost on the NYPD, which has routinely cracked down on such operations, pushing these wonderful outposts into near extinction. As a result, I find myself frequently having to pay the exorbitant, legal $12.50 for a pack.

Which is why, for a couple reasons, I'm happy to hear about Lonnie "Loosie" Warner.

By 8:30 a.m., amid the procession of sleepy-eyed office workers and addicts from the nearby methadone clinic, Lonnie Loosie plants himself in the middle of the sidewalk on Eighth Avenue in Midtown. Addressing no one in particular, he calls out his one-size-fits-all greeting: "Newports, Newports, packs and loosies."

Rarely does a minute go by without a customer stopping just long enough to pass a dollar bill to Lonnie Loosie, known to the police by his given name, Lonnie Warner, 50. They clench the two "loosies" -- as single cigarettes are called -- that he thrusts back in return.

So the loosie has moved to the streets! And its purveyors are thriving. According to the article, Lonnie Loosie is making enough money selling untaxed cigarettes that for the first time in his life, the 50 year-old might be able to buy health insurance.

"The tax went up, and we started selling 10 times as much," he told the Times, referring to recent tax hikes in tobacco sales, like the $1.60 increase back in July. "Bloomberg thinks he's stopping people from smoking. He's just turning them onto loosies."

It's a story with which we're all familiar -- prohibit or tax a vice and watch it thrive on the black market.

Many New York smokers have resorted to getting their cigarettes online, or buying their smokes in bulk when they go out of state or on an international trip.

Loosies are a particularly decadent thrill for the smoker in New York. They're illegal, they satisfy your craving, and at 50 cents a cigarette, you save about $2.50 for every 20 cigarettes you'd buy in a pack at a law-abiding store.

Many buy loosies when they're trying to quit and don't want to commit to a pack. Others, like me, buy them when they're broke.

When I want one, I dip into my change jar and go to the dodgier bodega in my neighborhood (which will remain unnamed) and wait in line behind people doing the same thing. I buy two or three Marlboros at a time. Usually they're given to me in a small brown paper bag -- the same kind they wrap around cans of beer when you want to drink on the street.

If I'm buying a pack, someone has to retrieve it from a back room while I put down eight dollars on the counter, in exact change, so that there's no mistake: I'm here to buy illegal cigarettes and I'm not paying full price.

In case you haven't figured it out: I love smoking. I like the way it smells, I like the way it tastes after a meal or with a cocktail, I like the way it fends off boredom, I like it on a hot, sweaty summer day and I like it on a cold, crisp, winter night. Comedian Bill Hicks put it well when he said, "I like to think of my life as a highway flowing through the universe and I need the tar to fill the potholes in my soul." In the end, the ritual and routine of smoking, not to mention the nicotine, puts me at ease and relaxes me.

That I'm doing something physically harmful to myself is a choice I'm comfortable with and feel, as an adult, a choice I shouldn't be punished for. People have the right to get fat and drink too much, and I should have the right to smoke without being taxed out of next month's rent.

And so, if the example put forth by Lonnie Loosie is a trend or becomes one, it's an encouraging sign of resistance to a series of nanny-state laws that attempts to infantilize a whole group of people whose only crime is the enjoyment of a legal drug.

These days, loosies offer the pleasure first of the sweet sweet flavor of the tobacco -- for make no mistake about it, I'm addicted -- and second the pleasure of a tiny, fiery act of civil disobedience.