According to a recent survey of registered voters by Zogby International, 45% of Americans would support a federal law making cigarettes illegal in the next five to ten years. 57% of 18-29 year olds were in favor of the idea. These numbers prompt a series of questions: What if cigarettes became the new Prohibition? Could cigarette prohibition really happen? How do drug prohibition regimes come about? What do public health advocates think about banning cigarettes? How unhealthy is smoking?
What if cigarettes became the new Prohibition?
Cigarette prohibition would have some obvious benefits. Millions of American smokers would finally quit, and millions more would never start. Smoking-related death and disease would drop significantly.
But that’s not all that would happen. Many Americans would continue to smoke, and Big Tobacco would be replaced by a violent black market. "Tobacco-related murders" would increase dramatically as criminal organizations competed with one another for turf and markets, and ordinary crime would skyrocket as millions of tobacco junkies sought ways to feed their costly addiction.
Prohibition would pave the way for a costly governmental "war on tobacco" that would put tobacco producers, pushers and users in prison. At the same time, the federal and state governments would lose more than $20 billion per year in tobacco tax revenues.
"Keep Cigarettes Legal"
Nadelmann, Ethan, The Huffington Post. October 26, 2006.
"New Drug Policy Alliance/Zogby Poll Finds 45 Percent Support Making Cigarettes Illegal"
Drug Policy Alliance. October 26, 2006.
"Cigarette Taxes, Black Markets, and Crime"
Fleenor, Patrick. Cato Institute; February 6, 2003.
"Nightmare of Crack Nicotine"
Wheeler, Jack, Washington Times, August 29, 2002.
Ten-Year Revenue Projections for New Federal Cigarette Tax Increases
Lindblom, Eric. National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, June 2003.
"Ethan Nadelmann on Tobacco Prohibition"
Nadelmann, Ethan. YouTube.com, October 26, 2006.
Prisons provide the closest model we have in the U.S. to complete cigarette prohibition. A law that went into effect in 2005 in California outlawed all tobacco products in state prisons.
Letter from DPA California Capital Office associate director Nikos Leverenz to California Department of Corrections
Leverenz, Nikos. Sacramento, CA, October 6, 2005.
"California, Cigarettes and Prisons: Ban Smoking, Not Tobacco"
Rodu, Brad, Las Vegas Review-Journal. February 05, 2004.
"Prison Smoking Ban Likely to Bring a Pack of Changes"
Warren, Jennifer, Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2005.
"Tobacco Ban in State Prisons Will Create Black Market, Violence"
Newman, Tony, San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2005.
Could cigarette prohibition really happen?
Drug prohibitions tend to be embraced not when a drug is most popular but rather when use is declining, as tobacco use is now. We’ve become accustomed to restrictions on smoking – sale to minors, and bans on smoking in more and more workplaces and public spaces – and on advertising. And we hate the corporations that profit off this deadly product.
A Federal Ban on Cigarettes? Nationwide Survey of 1,200 Registered Voters
Zogby International for Drug Policy Alliance. July 2006.
"U.S. Cigarette Sales Reach Lowest Point in More Than 50 Years"
Cesar Fax, Center for Substance Abuse Research, July 24, 2006.
Health, United States, 2005 with Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans
National Center for Health Statistics; 2005: pp. 32-35, 254-258.
The ever higher taxes and broader bans on cigarettes have played an important role in reducing both the number of smokers and the amount they smoke. Persisting with these policies will no doubt lead to further reductions. But there is a point of declining returns at which the costs of such policies begin to outweigh the benefits. It is true that stigmatizing smokers and smoking persuades some to stop and deters others from starting, but demonizing and dehumanizing those who persist is both morally wrong and dangerous.
"Was Weyco Wrong to Fire Smokers?"
Drug Policy Alliance; February 2005.
Other nations have tried complete smoking bans with little success, France and India among them. Recently the European Union decided that employers can discriminate against smokers in making hiring decisions.
"EU says smokers not protected by law"
Associated Press, August 7, 2006.
"The new deviant class: smokers"
Patterson, Patricia, Toronto Star , August 20, 2006.
"The First Nonsmoking Nation" (Bhutan)
Weiner, Eric, Slate , January 20, 2005.
How do drug prohibition regimes come about?
As the number of smokers drops, the dangerous logic of prohibition becomes ever more tempting. But prohibition is not a simple question of public health—it is closely tied to racism and classism.
For example, the first drug prohibition in the U.S. was imposed on opium. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, opium addiction was most common among middle and upper-class white women and was seen as a health problem.
That perception began to shift as opium smoking became associated with Chinese immigrants in the western United States. Fears that respectable white women were being seduced into a life of prostitution and debauchery in opium dens were inflamed by vivid reports. In 1902, the Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit of the American Pharmaceutical Association declared: "If the 'Chinaman' cannot get along without his 'dope,' we can get along without him." In 1909, California outlawed the importation of smokeable opium.
Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America Before 1940
Courtwright, David T., Harvard University Press, 1982.
Perceptions of cocaine use went through a similar transformation. As with opium, cocaine use in the early twentieth century was most common among well-to-do white women.
In 1910 Dr. Hamilton Wright, considered by some the father of U.S. anti-narcotics laws, reported that U.S. contractors were giving cocaine to their Black employees to get more work out of them. A few years later, stories began to proliferate about "cocaine-crazed Negroes" in the South. These stories were in part motivated by a desire to persuade Southern members of Congress to support the proposed Harrison Narcotics Act, which would greatly expand the federal government's power to control drugs. This lie was also necessary since, even though drugs were widely used in America, very little crime was associated with the users.
"The History of Legislative Control Over Opium, Cocaine, and their Derivatives"
Musto, D.F. Dealing with drugs: Consequences of government control. Ed. Ronald Hamowy. San Francisco, CA: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1987. 37-71. Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. 2006. DRCNet.
What do public health advocates think about banning cigarettes?
Public health advocates are on the forefront of efforts to reduce smoking, but they do not necessarily advocate prohibition. Many leading public health advocates who oppose smoking do not see prohibition as a viable solution.
Longtime anti-tobacco advocate Dr. Stanton Glantz does not favor prohibition, instead advocating changing cultural attitudes about smoking.
Former FDA commissioner David Kessler said on PBS, "It's a product that 50 million Americans use. Prohibition won't work. So how do you reduce the use of an unsafe product?"
Matthew Myers of Tobacco-Free Kids had the following exchange with television host Tucker Carlson:
MYERS: Well, it should -- it should be legal because we have 46 million Americans smokers. We know that Prohibition...
CARLSON: Because a lot of people do it, it should be legal?
MYERS: Well, prohibition wouldn't work. It would be bad public policy. It would be bad...
LEVY: Well, how about -- how about illegal for anybody to start smoking (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...
MYERS: It would be bad. . . Right now it is illegal to sell cigarettes to kids in this country.
MYERS: No public health person I know is in favor of prohibition. What we're in favor of is some simple rules. . . This industry should have to abide by the same standards as others. If you can make the product less hazardous so you kill fewer people you should do it. Ford had to do it with Pinto. This industry could do it...
How unhealthy is smoking?
Cigarettes are deadly. They lead to premature death for 400,000 people each year in the U.S. Every year, 40% of American smokers try to quit but are unable to do so.
TIPS - CDC fact sheets on the harms of smoking
Stupid - Ontario, Canada's youth anti-smoking campaign
What if cigarettes became the new Prohibition?