A Zogby survey of likely voters has found that 45% would support making cigarettes illegal within the next five to 10 years. Currently, cigarettes are not illegal anywhere in the United States (except some jails and prisons, where they are considered contraband), although moves to restrict smoking and tax tobacco products are winning broad acceptance.
According to the survey, which was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance
(DPA) and conducted in July, banning cigarettes is supported by senior citizens (51%), conservatives (51%), born-again Christians (52%), and adults with less than high-school education (55%). But strikingly -- and a sign of looming trouble for anti-prohibitionists -- the age group that most strongly supports making cigarettes illegal is young people. Among 18-to-29-year-olds, support for cigarette prohibition stood at 57%.
Still, a slim majority (52%) opposes prohibiting cigarettes. Opposition to a ban is strongest among 50-to-64-year-olds, independent voters, liberals, moderates, college graduates, people with some college education, men, and residents of rural areas and the South. Among these subgroups, roughly 60% oppose a ban.
At a Thursday news conference in New York, DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann warned that criminalizing cigarettes would have disastrous consequences. "If cigarettes were illegal, we would risk the prohibition-style shootouts and violence that characterized the Al Capone era," Nadelmann said. "Millions of our fellow Americans -- our friends and families -- would be considered criminals. We already have too many people with addiction problems serving long prison sentences. The last thing we need is to ruin many more lives with another ineffective prohibition strategy."
Nadelmann was joined by Allen Rosenfield, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, who called for a public health approach to tobacco. "I am surprised by the numbers of people supportive of making cigarettes illegal and am totally supportive of the statements of the Drug Policy Alliance," he said. "From a public health perspective the focus should be on prevention through expanded public education campaigns, such as the very effective campaigns run by the American Legacy Foundation, taxes on cigarettes, banning sales to teenagers and bans on indoor smoking at restaurants and bars. But making cigarettes illegal would be a huge mistake."
Also addressing the press conference -- via cell phone from the snowbound Denver airport -- was former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, now a prominent member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "Outlaw cigarettes? Tobacco smokers run huge health risks, and the costs to taxpayers are substantial. But, as a non-smoker, and a 34-year veteran of law enforcement, I can't imagine a more dangerous, short-sighted law," said Stamper. "We've cut cigarette smoking in half, the result of education, taxation, and regulation -- without putting a single cigarette smoker in jail. We're on the right track, let's not get derailed."
Stamper warned that cigarette prohibition could lead to a repeat of the crime and violence associated with alcohol Prohibition and current drug prohibition. "We would see the creation of a criminal underclass with unprecedented levels of violence and innocent people caught in the crossfire, the same as we are experiencing with the drug war," he said. "We believe cigarette prohibition would escalate tensions in our society to almost unimaginable levels. Cigarette prohibition would lead to an increase in death, disease, crime, and addiction, just as with other prohibited drugs."
As a result of decades-long public education campaigns, cigarette smoking has been declining steadily in the United States and is now concentrated among the poorer, least educated, and minority populations, which, Rosenfield warned, may make it easier to impose a prohibition on smoking. "As with illicit drugs, it would be primarily low-income minority people in jail," he said. "We should forbid companies from marketing tobacco, the outlawing of sales to minors should continue, but the focus should be on education and regulation, not making smoking illegal."
When asked by Drug War Chronicle if trumpeting the fact that there is strong support for cigarette prohibition wasn't playing into the hands of prohibitionists, Nadelmann acknowledged such concerns, but said they were outweighed by the need to take preemptive action to nip any such moves in the bud. "We debated this question inside DPA before we went public," he said. "If we surface this, would it aid those who favor criminalization? We decided we are on a real slippery slope, and if we didn't do this now, in two or three years the numbers could be even higher, so we thought it was important to raise the alarm now, while the majority still oppose prohibiting cigarettes. We need to start making the case that the logical end of a public health campaign is not prohibition."
DPA is preparing to launch an educational campaign for politicians and the public about the unintended consequences that could result from a new prohibition on cigarettes, Nadelmann added. "Public health officials, law enforcement and treatment providers should speak out loudly and clearly against cigarette prohibition," he said. "We can't allow hysteria to overwhelm rational responses to the legitimate concerns about the harms of cigarettes. We can't afford to repeat the same mistakes we have made with other harmful substances."
Well, smokers, smoke 'em if you've got 'em, because if this poll is any indication, you may not have 'em for long -- unless you're willing to resort to the black market.