Over the last few years, a few jurisdictions in the United States have become more tolerant of marijuana use. Whereas cannabis is treated as a controlled substance by the federal government, some municipalities, counties and states have enacted laws that legalize the use of this herb for therapeutic and recreational purpose. The marijuana legalization trend has renewed interest in an old debate surrounding tobacco, which also happens to come from a plant.
Tobacco smoking is estimated to cause more deaths each year than all the other controlled substances put together; nonetheless, they are legal across the U.S. The tobacco industry is subject to heavy regulation, and the smoking habit is subject to lots of restrictions. Initiatives to educate people about the dangers of smoking have brought about sharp decreases in tobacco consumption, and yet millions of people are daily smokers. These seem to be the underlying reasons behind the results of a 2006 national poll that revealed strong support for making tobacco a controlled substance: Nearly 50 percent of Americans would like to see cigarettes made illegal.
The Problem with Making Cigarettes Illegal
The legal framework to declare tobacco a controlled substance is certainly under the constitutional purview of the United States. It would not be an easy process, but Congress has that kind of power. Having support from nearly half of all Americans would definitely help, and the public health benefits would theoretically outweigh any legislative headaches along the way. Even liquor could be outlawed in this fashion, and we have the Prohibition era to remember in this regard.
For all the good intentions associated with making cigarettes illegal on the basis of harm, morality and paternalism, modern history suggests that such a measure could lead to disastrous consequences such as the Drug War. We are not talking about nicotine withdrawals; there are serious issues to consider. From black market activity to lost revenue and from a divisive constituency to the disappearance of an industry, tobacco prohibition could actually do more harm than good in the long run.
The legal ground gained by marijuana advocates in some jurisdictions could be endangered by making cigarettes illegal. At this time, the best approach to curb smoking would be to continue to educate people about its dangers and to enforce reasonable restrictions.