Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jan 2011
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2011 Independent Media Institute
Author: Tony Newman
Note: Tony Newman is communications director for the Drug Policy Alliance.


The battle over cigarettes is heating up - and recent news shows that 
momentum to criminalize
tobacco smoking continues to build in the United States and around the

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."

The Wall Street Journal reported last week 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.

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.
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