Will cigarettes be illegal in the future? The battle over cigarettes is heating up -- and recent news shows that momentum to criminalize tobacco smoking continues to build in the U.S. and around the world.
Last week 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 sentences. Breaking down doors and long sentences over the tobacco plant! Sounds familiar? If it does, it's because that's how the U.S. deals with the marijuana and coca plants.
And the creeping criminalization of tobacco is not only happening in far away places, but right here in the "Land of the Free."
While I support many restrictions on public smoking, such as at restaurants and workplaces, and I appreciate public education campaigns and efforts aimed at discouraging young people from smoking, I believe 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?
The prohibition of flavored cigarettes also moves us another step closer to total cigarette prohibition. Last year it was cloves. This year it may be menthol. And why not all cigarettes next year? Cigarettes kill; 400,000 people die prematurely every year from smoking. When we analyze the harm from drugs, there is no doubt that cigarettes are the worst. Considering how harshly we deal with less harmful drugs like marijuana, by that same flawed logic cigarettes should be illegal too.
But with all the good intentions in the world, outlawing cigarettes would be just as disastrous as the prohibition of other drugs. After all, people would still smoke, just as they still use other drugs that are prohibited, from marijuana to cocaine. But now, in addition to the harm of smoking, there would be a whole range of "collateral consequences," such as black market-related violence, that crop up with prohibition.
Remember, banning marijuana and coca plants have led to 35,000 deaths in Mexico due to prohibition 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 and provide the desired drug.
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," 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)
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