THE BLOG
10/26/2006 11:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keep Cigarettes Legal

Would you support a federal law making cigarettes illegal in the next five to ten years?

According to a recent nationwide survey of registered voters by Zogby International, 45% of Americans said yes. Among 18-29 year olds, 57% were in favor.

Maybe it's time to ask: what if cigarettes became the new Prohibition?

The upside is clear. Millions of American smokers would finally quit, and millions more would never start. Smoking-related death and disease would drop significantly. That's all to the good, but it's not all that would happen.

Millions of Americans, perhaps tens of millions, would keep puffing. Big tobacco wouldn't disappear; it would just change hands and go underground, discarding its high priced lobbyists in favor of people more skilled in violence and intimidation. Some tobacco farmers would find other work but thousands more would become outlaws, producing their crops covertly. Mexico's and Colombia's narco-traficantes would rejoice at the opportunities for new markets and profits. "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. Smoking would become an act of youthful rebellion; no doubt some users would begin to experiment with even more dangerous forms of tobacco. Fewer people would die in their sixties of cancer and emphysema, but more would die young from the harms and life style associated with illicit tobacco addiction.

And just imagine the government's "war on tobacco": hundreds of thousands of new jobs for federal, state and local police, and hundreds of thousands of new prison cells for tobacco producers, pushers and users; government helicopters spraying herbicides on illicit tobacco fields here and abroad; people rewarded for informing on tobacco-growing, -selling, and -smoking neighbors; police seizing the cars of people caught smoking; urine tests commonplace to identify users; tobacco courts compelling addicts to quit or go to jail; and an ever bigger federal police agency--the Tobacco Enforcement Administration (the T.E.A.) -- employing undercover agents, informants, and wire-taps to get the bad guys. Forget, too, about the twenty-plus billion dollars per year in tobacco taxes earned by the federal and state governments prior to prohibition. The new "tax collectors" would be organized and unorganized criminals, even as governments spent tens of billions per year trying futilely to enforce the new Prohibition.

Is such a scenario improbable? I think not, given our country's rich history of enacting prohibitions with little foresight or forethought. Drug prohibitions tend to be embraced not when a drug is most popular but rather when use is declining, and increasingly concentrated among people who are poorer, darker and younger.

As the number of smokers drops, the dangerous logic of prohibition becomes ever more tempting. Forty years ago, when half of all men and a third of all women smoked, most non-smokers barely noticed cigarette smoke unless it was particularly thick or right in their face. Now, with barely one in five Americans still smoking, we non-smokers are increasingly intolerant. We think smoking cigarettes is filthy, deadly and offensive. We've become accustomed to bans on smoking - by minors, and in more and more workplaces and public spaces - and on advertising cigarettes. And we hate the corporations that profit off this deadly product.

But it's important not to get carried away with our rhetoric and our bans. 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. 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.

Why sound the alarm before the fire's begun? Because those poll results suggest that millions of Americans just aren't thinking through the consequences of making cigarettes entirely illegal.

Now's the time for anti-smoking advocates, public health leaders -- and police chiefs -- to affirm that prohibition can not, and must not, be the end result of today's vigorous anti-smoking campaign -- even if the number of smokers drops from today's forty million to less than ten million. Ditto for Mayor Bloomberg, given his political and very generous philanthropic commitment to the cause of reducing smoking.

And, full disclosure: I hate cigarettes. I don't like the smell. I don't like the look. And I don't like the fact that my dad's pack-a-day habit no doubt contributed to the massive heart attack that killed him at 58. My teenage daughter knows there are few things she could do that would upset me more than to start smoking cigarettes.

But a new Prohibition is not the answer - not if we want to stay safe, sane and free.

Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and is co-author of "Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations." For more on the dangers of tobacco prohibition, please visit the Drug Policy Alliance website.