THE BLOG
11/18/2014 04:09 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

What Were They Thinking? Massachusetts Town Tries to Ban Tobacco

A small town in Massachusetts made national news recently when the local health board moved to make Westminster, Mass. the first place in the country where no one could buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco.

You can predict the rationale behind the proposed tobacco ban.

"Cigarettes kill!"

"400,000 people die prematurely from smoking every year!"

"We need to protect the kids!"

"The Board of Health permitting these establishments to sell these dangerous products that, when used as directed, kill 50 percent of its users, ethically goes against our public health mission," said Ms. Andrea Crete, chairwoman of the Board of Health, in an article in the New York Times.

While I sympathize with the urge to protect people from dangerous products, banning of all things tobacco is a major move toward the slippery slope of making cigarettes illegal. If towns and cities -- under the rationale that cigarettes kill -- can prohibit selling cigarettes today, it is easy to imagine the next step of prohibiting them completely tomorrow.

But with all of the good intentions in the world, outlawing cigarettes would be just as disastrous as the prohibition on other drugs. Let's imagine what our country would look like if cigarettes became illegal.

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, we would find a whole range of "collateral consequences" that come along with prohibition.

A huge number of people who smoke would continue to do so, but now they would be considered criminals. We would have smokers hiding their habit and smoking in alleys and dark corners, afraid of being caught using the illegal substance.

We would have cops using precious time and resources to hassle and arrest cigarette smokers. Our prison overcrowding crisis would rise to an unprecedented level with "addicts" and casual cigarette smokers alike getting locked up.

We would have an illicit market, with "outlaws" taking the place of delis and supermarkets and 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.

Cigarettes are prohibited in many state prison systems, like in California, and we have seen that smoking continues, with cigarettes being sold on an underground market. There is a violent, illicit market that fills the void and leads to unnecessary deaths over access and the inflated profits.

Fortunately, the people of Westminster get it and they are furious with the proposed banning of tobacco. Smokers and non-smokers are uniting in their outrage against the ban. 500 people (out of a town of 7,800) showed up at a board meeting and were so passionate, the meeting was shut down after 20 minutes.

They are right to draw a line in the sand. We have seen towns, cities and states copy each other when it comes to restricting not only smoking, but products like e-cigarettes than help people stop smoking.

We need to stop this prohibition virus before it spreads.

We need to realize that drugs, from cigarettes to marijuana to 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.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance(www.drugpolicy.org)

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog:http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/what-were-they-thinking-massachusetts-town-tries-ban-tobacco