Why Smoking Bans in Prison Are Not The Answer!

05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

According to a major story in USA Today last week, more than half of U.S. states have now banned smoking in their prisons.

The rationale that drives prisons to prohibit smoking is that it improves the heath of people behind bars and saves health care costs. While improving prisoners' health and saving scarce tax dollars are worthy goals, in reality these bans don't prevent prisoners from smoking -- but they do create a whole range of unintended consequences, none of which are discussed in the USA Today story.

Prohibition of drugs doesn't work in society or behind bars. Despite 40 years of a "war on drugs," marijuana and other drugs are as accessible as ever. The same is true behind bars. It is common knowledge that drug use is rampant in prison. It's ironic that drug war policies are premised on the promise of a "drug-free society," yet we can't even keep drugs out of maximum security prisons.

The prohibition of cigarettes doesn't stop smoking; it just hands over control of the commodity to the black market and causes prices to skyrocket. An Associated Press article in 2007 looked at the impact of California's ban on tobacco in prisons and found a burgeoning black market where a pack of smokes could fetch up to $125 dollars! The end result is that the drug trade around cigarettes becomes as violent as the drug trade around illicit drugs.

If we acknowledge that tobacco use -- like other drug use -- is inevitable, the next question should be: What will happen to people who are caught smoking cigarettes? We know that people behind bars are already excessively punished for illicit drug use. My colleague Anthony Papa at the Drug Policy Alliance just wrote a piece about Amir Varick Amma, who served five extra years behind bars for smoking a marijuana joint in prison. Are people going to be punished in the same ruthless and counterproductive ways for breaking the tobacco ban?

Instead of criminalizing a popular coping mechanism, the state should offer incarcerated smokers educational resources and a helping hand if they are interested in quitting. The cost of providing inmates with nicorette gum and nicotine patches would be far less expensive than adding more punitive sanctions to their already excessive time behind bars -- and it wouldn't create a new violent black market. As we learned with alcohol in the 1920s and through decades of the counterproductive war on drugs, regulation is more effective at promoting safety and health than prohibition.

Tony Newman is the Director of Media Relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (