Recent legislation has introduced tough new anti-smoking laws in the U.S., which now give the federal government sweeping power over how cigarettes are made, packaged, and sold. Recently, President Barack Obama commented that, “Along with legislation to protect credit card owners from unfair rate hikes, homeowners from mortgage fraud and abuse, and taxpayers from wasteful defense spending, this kids tobacco bill would be the fourth piece of bipartisan legislation that I’ve signed into law over the last month that protects the American consumer and changes the way Washington works and who Washington works for.”
“It will force these companies to more clearly and publicly acknowledge the harmful and deadly effects of the products they sell,” said the president, “and it will allow the scientists at the Food and Drug Administration to take other common sense steps to reduce the harmful effects of smoking.” The intention here, I believe, is honest and good. Also, I think that we members of the cultured alcohol elite would all agree that keeping potentially harmful products like cigarettes away from minors, much like preventing underage drinking, is of great merit without question. Still, the notion that the tobacco industry is being handed over to the FDA to be regulated doesn’t sit well, since it evokes the beginnings of something we already know is inherently flawed: Prohibition.
An entire host of social problems have been attributed to the Prohibition era, including Mafia groups, which prior to 1920 had limited their activities to little more than gambling and theft. Violent, mob-organized bootlegging began to flourish due to the profitable black-market that developed for alcohol, leading to corruption of law enforcement agencies by influential gangs. Also, prohibiting the sale of alcohol actually led to the production of stronger liquor, which surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. Perhaps worst of all, the literal cost of enforcing Prohibition in the United States was enormous, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol had negative effects on government.
Though Prohibition of alcohol was removed within years of its enactment, the same can’t be said for “the Devil’s Lettuce”, marijuana. More recently, in 2005 Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron, an expert on drug-related crime who conducted research for the Marijuana Policy Project, issued a report titled “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition.” In this report, Miron’s research suggested that if the US stopped arresting 700,000 Americans annually for mostly minor marijuana offenses, federal and local governments could benefit from the resulting $10 billion to $14 billion in savings and new tax revenues. In addition, close to $7.7 billion would be saved on enforcement costs. Taxing marijuana the same as alcohol and tobacco could result in revenues close to $6.2 billion.
So if Prohibition is so costly, and we could afford to save so much from its repeal, why does our government seem to be headed down that old familiar road with cigarettes? Again, anyone with a conscience knows that preventing children from taking up the harmful habit of smoking isn’t only right, it’s necessary. Still, it also seems that enforcing programs that give parents greater incentive to educate their children is a viable strategy worthy of consideration, also.
To look at this from another angle, when teenagers begin to feel the desire to allow nature to take its course, what do we do about it? Do we choose to prohibit advertisements in magazines that are sexually suggestive? Can we? We have sex education classes, curriculum designed entirely with the intent of educating young adults about the responsibilities that come with becoming sexually active, as well as its potential dangers. How come we don’t have similar programs designed solely with the intent of educating minors about alcohol and tobacco? There are already programs like D.A.R.E. which provide this sort of education to elementary-school age groups. However, one must consider the influence that drug, alcohol, and tobacco education–when added to middle school and high school curriculum–might have, especially considering statistics provided by the American Lung Association which show that each day approximately 3,600 children between 12 and 17 years of age smoke their first cigarette. Of these, an estimated 1,100 of them will become regular smokers. The logic here seems to be that younger, more impressionable children can more easily be taught the dangers of smoking at an earlier age. Still, it also seems that the continuance of their education into the years when they are statistically more likely to begin smoking would be beneficial also.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul (R) shared his views on the recent anti-smoking legislation eloquently before the U.S. House. “I don’t think anyone can argue at all with the intention of the proposal of this bill. There’s no question that cigarettes are very harmful,” Paul says. “The question, for me here, is the process, and I find the process atrocious, because it assumes that authoritarianism is right and proper and works. Volunteerism and education and self reliance and depending on oneself to take care of oneself is a proper approach. We totally reject our free society and assume that if we just have ‘tobacco police’ roaming the country, then all that is going to be cleared up.”
Congressman Paul then points out that, for decades, tobacco was subsidized in the U.S. “We subsidized tobacco… and now we want to prohibit tobacco! Why don’t we just let the people decide… this whole idea that you either have to subsidize or prohibit something shows a shallowness that I think that we ought to challenge.”
“This will lead to Prohibition, and it won’t work,” Paul says.
Something about taking such great measures to prohibit tobacco sales, in any capacity, does seem rather counter-productive. Altogether, history has already shown us that Prohibition doesn’t work, just as Ron Paul warns us. Will we ever learn from out mistakes, or are we destined to continue them, ad infinitum, to the potential detriment of society?