How should our society deal with nicotine? There are millions of people who use this legal drug. Many people love their cigarettes. Others can't stand their smoking and wish they could stop the addictive habit. Some people can control their smoking -- they'll have a few cigarettes (over a few drinks) and then don't smoke for awhile. Others, like me, can't do this. If I smoke even one, before I know it I am smoking a pack a day. We all know people who smoke. We all know people who have quit. We all know someone who has died prematurely from smoking.
Every week I read about new legislation or policy proposals about how we will limit smoking in our society. Below is my analysis of the good, the bad and the terrifying proposals that are on the table.
Smoke-Free Workplaces, Restaurants and Bars:
I lived in both California and New York when they passed their laws prohibiting smoking at restaurants and bars. While many smokers and businesses were outraged and complained about the potential loss of business or personal freedom, I think we can now agree that these bans have been a success. Smokers can walk a few feet outside to enjoy their smoke. Nonsmokers can enjoy bars without being exposed to secondhand smoke -- and most people, including smokers, enjoy waking up the next morning without their clothes reeking like smoke.
Offering Nicotine Replacement (Gum, Patches) to Those Trying to Quit:
Mayor Bloomberg has made it a personal mission to get people to quit cigarettes. One thing he has done right is offer New Yorkers free nicotine replacement, like patches and gum, to those who want to quit. It is both cost-effective and humane to offer non-punitive ways to help people who want to give up cigarettes.
Age Restrictions and Honest Drug Education for Young People:
Anti-smoking advocates have prioritized education and age restrictions to keep cigarettes out of young people's hands. Programs like the Truth Campaign, an innovative ad campaign directed at young people, have been successful in reducing smoking. It speaks honestly about the harms of smoking and treated young people with respect.
Compared to the over the top "Just Say No" anti-drug commercials that exaggerated and lied to young people, this approach is much more effective. Young people have long ridiculed and ignored messages like the "This is Your Brain on Drugs" and absurd claims that if you smoke marijuana you will become a homeless heroin addict. Drug education campaigns need to be honest and truthful if we want young people to be open to the message.
Banning Smoking at Parks and Beaches
Mayor Bloomberg's health department and the NY City Council recently passed a law banning smoking at all NYC parks and beaches. This law is overkill -- unlike bars and restaurants, which are private property, these laws are applied to outdoor public spaces. As a result, it will inevitably lead to overzealous enforcement. When we make laws and place restrictions on both legal and illegal drugs, people of color are usually the ones busted. White people and black people use and sell drugs at similar rates, but blacks go to jail for drugs at 13 times the rate of whites. More than 50,000 people were arrested in New York City last year for marijuana possession, and 87 percent of those arrested were black or Latino. The fact is that blacks and Latinos are arrested for pot at much higher rates in part because officers make stop-and-frisk searches disproportionately in black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods. I'm willing to wager that not all parks and beaches will be enforced equally and at the end of the day, we are going to have more people of color being issued tickets for this new "crime".
Refusing to Hire or Firing People Who Smoke
A few weeks ago there was a front page New York Times story about hospitals around country refusing to hire people who smoke. They are giving drug tests to make sure people aren't smoking - and if someone fails the test, they are terminated. They justify the discrimination by saying they want to improve people's health and they don't want to pay the extra health costs that may result from people who smoke.
Firing people who partake in legal activities in the privacy of their own home or outside of the job is a dangerous and slippery slope. The arguments against hiring people for their "unhealthy" and "costly" smoking habits today, can be used against people who are overweight and eat fast-food tomorrow.
Banning Menthol Cigarettes
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the FDA is looking into banning menthol cigarettes. The argument by some antismoking groups is that menthol cigarettes are enticing to adolescent smokers and have been marketed to the African American community. A ban on menthols would build on the FDA's ban last year on flavored cigarettes and cloves.
The prohibition of menthols would inevitably lead to harmful and unintended consequences. For millions of people, menthols are their smoke of choice. I have no doubt that someone is going to step in to meet this demand. What do we propose doing to the people who are caught selling illegal menthol cigarettes? Are cops going to have to expend limited resources to enforce this ban? Are we going to arrest and lock up people who are selling the illegal cigarettes? Prisons are already bursting at the seams (thanks to drug laws) across the country. Are we going to waste more taxpayer money on criminalization and incarceration?
Scheduling Nicotine as a Prescription Drug
There is currently a bill being considered in Oregon, House Bill 2233, that would classify nicotine as a Schedule III controlled substance available only by prescription. It would be a crime to possess nicotine, punishable by up to year in prison, a fine of up to $6,250, or both. And it would be a crime to unlawfully distribute nicotine, with the same punishments. Making possession of nicotine without a prescription a crime is not going to stop people from smoking, but will lead to a dangerous, inevitably violent illicit market where people will buy cigarettes on the street, without a prescription. Now, in addition to the harm of smoking, there would be a whole range of "collateral consequences" that crop up with prohibition - people behind bars, loss of civil liberties, turf violence, corruption, tainted drugs, and racial disparities in drug law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing.
Banning the Sale of Tobacco
In January the New York Times reported on the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan's war on cigarette smokers. Back in 2005 Bhutan banned the sale of tobacco, but made little headway, as smugglers brought in cigarettes from India. Now the country is enforcing the ban by allowing authorities to break down doors looking for illegal cigarettes. People who sell illegal cigarettes are now facing five-year prison sentences. Breaking down doors and long sentences over the tobacco plant! In February, the BBC reported that a Buddhist monk was facing five years in prison because he was caught with 72 packets of chewing tobacco.
Final Thoughts: Learning to Live with Tobacco and Other Drugs
U.S. tobacco policy has been one of the most successful drug control strategies in our country. We have reduced smoking substantially - and we've achieved this without putting people in jail.
But let's be careful. The banning of Menthol cigarettes, the criminalizing of smoking at outdoor places likes parks, the refusal to hire people who smoke, and the requirement of a prescription are all building towards demonization and even prohibition of cigarettes. Remember, prohibition of marijuana and coca - which were both legal throughout history until less than a century ago - have led to 35,000 deaths in Mexico over just the past four years.
Imagine what banning the tobacco plant would do. We would have a black market, with outlaws taking the place of delis and supermarkets, stepping in to meet the demand. Instead of buying your cigarettes in a legally sanctioned place, you would have to hit the streets to pick up your fix. The cigarette trade would provide big revenue to "drug dealers" and organized crime, just as illegal drugs do today. There would be shootouts in the streets and killings over the right to sell the illicit substance.
We need to realize that drugs that already have an established demand, whether cigarettes or marijuana or alcohol, will always be consumed, whether they are legal or illegal. Although drugs have health consequences and dangers, making them illegal -- and keeping them illegal -- will only bring additional death and suffering.
We should celebrate our success curbing cigarette smoking and continue to encourage people to cut back or give up cigarettes, but let's not get carried away and think that criminalizing smoking or making cigarettes illegal is the answer.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)