It’s Time to Ban Cigarettes Completely

If a major American company sold a product which they knew to be so defective as to kill half of its users, one would expect their management to go to jail and to have the sale of their product banned. Their stock price would plummet, congress would hold hearings, and lawyers would file lawsuits.

But there is such a product sold in America today. It kills 480,000 Americans annually, is intentionally made addictive, and is marketed to children. This product is of course the cigarette, the deadliest of all human creations. A ban on tobacco is long overdue.

People are naturally weary of banning things, even things as bad as cigarettes, and perhaps for good reason. The legacies of prohibition and the war on drugs have made the American people shy to try another “noble experiment.” There are many concerns that need to be addressed — and I will address them— but I’m frankly unmoved by these minor criticisms. All arguments against a tobacco ban seem petty when compared against the totality of tobacco’s harms to our society. What liberal or logistical complications could outweigh millions of American lives taken unnecessarily by cigarettes?

The true cost of smoking is hard to appreciate. One in five deaths in America are because of cigarettes. Every day, smoking kills 1,300 people, making it the number one cause of preventable death in our country. And for every smoking related death, there are thirty people living with smoking related illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, vision loss, and various cancers. Altogether, smoking related illnesses in the US cost $300 billion every year. Is there any problem that would be created by the banning of tobacco that could be worse than doing nothing at all?

Let’s examine a few concerns that people have with a tobacco ban.

Prohibition Has Failed Before

Cartoon in prohibition-era magazine

When considering a smoking ban, clever people might think back to prohibition as an example of how moralistic laws controlling intoxicants will succeed only in creating a black market. But a tobacco ban is different from prohibition for a few reasons. First, it is not moralistic but is instead based firmly in the logic that we ought to try to keep people from harming themselves and those around them, burdening our healthcare system in the process. Second, the black market for alcohol was only as prominent as it was because most people responsibly enjoyed alcohol recreationally— demand was still high after the ban. But no one actually enjoys smoking; they’re all addicted. In fact, Bob Bexon, the former marketing director of Imperial Tobacco once wrote that if cigarettes weren’t addictive, they “would not sell a cigarette next week.”

Cigarettes and alcohol are fundamentally different in how they are used in society, and we would not see a repeat of alcohol prohibition with a tobacco ban. Almost all smokers are deeply unhappy with their addiction, and would use tobacco abolition as an opportunity to finally quit smoking. With free cessation programs for former smokers, a ban on tobacco could end smoking for good.

And for what it’s worth, prohibition wasn’t as bad as we seem to think. Movies about the organized crime that sprang up at the time sensationalize and exaggerate their influence. While crime was more entertaining, homicide rates actually remained steady throughout prohibition. Instead, alcohol consumption decreased dramatically, saving thousands of lives and resulting in fewer arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Civil Liberties

Many people make the very reasonable argument that adults should be able to make choices for themselves, even dumb ones, and that the government shouldn’t step in and tell them what not to do.

And that makes sense, except for one problem: Adults don’t choose to start smoking, children do. Nine in ten smokers started smoking before they were eighteen. Internal marketing documents from the tobacco industry show that children are the industry’s most important demographic. US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, in her final decision in United States v. Phillip Morris said that “the evidence is clear and convincing — and beyond any reasonable doubt — that [tobacco companies] have marketed to young people twenty-one and under.”

“The base of our business is the high school student.”
-Lorillard Tobacco

So the decision to smoke is not one being made by adults, but by children. And as for choice, these children are robbed of their choices by callous tobacco executives who intentionally produce tobacco with nicotine levels that will create addiction. That’s how a choice made by a child becomes a life-sentence — and it’s no accident, it’s the tobacco industry’s business model.

And it is not just the smoker who is hurt by their habit. Every year, 41,000 Americans die due to second hand smoke. People who have never touched a cigarette in their lives die early deaths — people who would otherwise live long and healthy lives — simply because they have the misfortune of spending too much time around cigarette smoke. There is no level of safe exposure to secondhand smoke.

So the civil liberties argument falls apart when confronted with the exceptionally immoral realities of the tobacco industry. The risks associated with smoking are not voluntarily assumed because the decision to smoke is made by ill-informed children who then become addicted to cigarettes — and non-smokers are also harmed.

In the interest of brevity, I cannot address all of the remaining concerns you may have with a tobacco ban. Instead, I invite you to consider whether or not whatever problem you think is likely to occur as a result of tobacco prohibition is a greater harm to our society than continuing the status quo. Whatever social ill you think is likely to result, would you allow 480,000 American to die every year indefinitely to prevent that problem from occurring? I argue that even if every criticism of a tobacco ban is completely valid, and few are, a tobacco ban would still, on balance, be overwhelmingly positive for our society.

I imagine that most readers will agree with the arguments that I’ve made, but still find themselves hesitant to consider themselves outright supporters of a tobacco ban. For those people, complete abolition may seem to go too far and to be too fringe an opinion. But it’s not as uncommon a belief as many think. A Gallop poll found that 67% of Americans see smoking as a very or extremely serious problem for society. They also found that nearly a quarter of Americans already support complete prohibition, while 57% support making smoking totally illegal in all pubic places.

There is nothing extremist about banning the sale of products that kill people. If a product were to come on the market tomorrow that were as deadly and as addictive as cigarettes, they’d be banned before lunch the next day. Back when the health effects of smoking were less clear, even tobacco industry executives acknowledged that it would be profoundly immoral to sell deadly products. The head of marketing at Phillips Morris said that they would “stop business tomorrow” if they “had any thought or knowledge that in any way we were selling a product harmful to consumers.” Phillips Morris’ CEO testified that if cigarettes cause cancer, he’d probably “shut [the company] down instantly.”

“If cigarettes caused cancer, I wouldn’t be involved with them. No one should sell a product that is a proven cause of lung cancer” —Curtis H Judge, Lorriard Tobacco President (1984)

We should not accept the effect that tobacco has on our society. The death toll, the health care burden, and number of tobacco related illnesses are too great ignore for the sake of maintaining the status quo. America’s tobacco deaths are preventable, and we ought to do whatever is necessary to save the lives of smokers and those around them.

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