Should Smoking Be Illegal?

I believe that we can all agree that the damage that smoking does to the society as a whole is not a matter that’s up for debate. As a former smoker, I’m acutely aware of the repercussions of smoking – only a fool wouldn’t be. So that begs the question: if we all know how bad smoking really is, why aren’t real steps taken to completely eradicate the habit, or, at least, to make it less mainstream?

We know that 16 million of Americans live with smoking-related diseases. We also know that around 480,000 deaths in the US every year are caused by smoking. We know those things – so why aren’t we doing anything about it? Why isn’t the government stepping in?

For us vaping advocates, it would be fairly easy to say: ‘Yes, ban smoking and we’ll save up to half a million people in the US every year – and tens of millions around the world’. This romantic line of reasoning comes to us without much effort. However, we’re also citizens and individuals, not just vapers, and should always be cautious of the absolutes.

Do we want to live in a society in which governments dictate exactly how you should poison yourself? Do free will and freedom of choice count for nothing? On the other hand, if nothing else is working, wouldn’t a blanket ban on manufacture and sale of cigarettes be the easiest way save millions of lives?

These are all ‘headachy’ questions, I know,  but let’s dive deeper to see if we can shed some light on them.

5 Reasons Why Smoking Shouldn’t Be Banned

I know, I know – blasphemy! But, there are some pretty valid reasons why smoking shouldn’t be banned (or, more accurately, would be very difficult to ban). Here they are:

  • Civil and religious liberties – going around telling people what they can and cannot put in their bodies isn’t a very constitutional thing to do. People are free to pursue their happiness, as long as they don’t endanger others while doing so. If we started with this ban, where could it lead? Banning skiing because it’s dangerous? Banning McDonald's because it’s bad for you? Also, some religions use smoking ritualistically – a ban would be a direct violation of their right to worship as they see fit.
  • Tax revenue – the US collects around $ 14.1 billion in taxes from the tobacco industry every year. That’s just from the manufacturers – more is collected from smokers through various state taxes (around $ 50 billion in 2013 and half a trillion total since 1998). If smoking were to be banned, we could all expect taxes to go up because that deficit would have to be covered in some way.
  • Tobacco jobs – thousands of people are employed in the tobacco industry in the US alone. Most of them have well-paid, manufacturing jobs. If we banned smoking, they would suddenly find themselves out of work.
  • Smoker reactions – as a smoker, I was very much aware of what I was doing to my health while I was smoking cigarettes. Still, I would have thrown a fit if the government decided unilaterally to ban smoking. Can you imagine the chaos in the streets if 15% of the population decided to take their frustrations out and air them? How long would things stay peaceful?
  • Black market – right now, the industry and smokers pay taxes. A ban would force the trade underground, where the state wouldn’t be able to control it or profit from it. In addition to the loss of revenue, it’s safe to assume that the quality of the product would go down (if it’s even possible for cigarettes to become even more poisonous than they already are).

5 Reasons Why Smoking Should Be Banned

Of course, there’s a bunch of reasons why smoking should be banned but I’ve decided to merge the similar ones into one for the sake of fairness. Regardless of that, you will notice that the ‘pro ban’ reasons carry a lot more gravitas than those against the ban.

  • Mortality rates – I’ve already briefly touched on this but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate – smoking kills around half of active smokers. In the US, that’s around 440,000 people every single year. A good number of these people would be up and about if smoking was banned 20 years ago.
  • Secondhand smoke – it’s not only smokers who die of smoking-related diseases. Around 41,000 people in the US die from the effects of secondhand smoke. They didn’t opt for it; they did nothing to bring it on themselves. The elderly and the children are especially vulnerable groups when it comes to secondhand smoke. A smoking ban would not only save smokers, but it would also save half a million innocent people in a 10-year period.
  • Social stigma and appearance – smoking carries a social stigma – it’s banned in restaurants, bars, hotels, and a lot of other public spaces. As such, it alienates people. Also, smoking radically alters the appearance of smokers. Their yellow fingernails and papery skin are a dead giveaway. At times, smokers are almost treated as second-class citizens. A smoking ban would get rid of this particular problem.
  • Environmental concerns and fires – the tobacco industry has a very detrimental effect on the environment – forest clearing, loss of farmland, pollution, and so on. In addition to that, smoking is the leading cause of urban and forest fires, with (conservatively) estimated damages of $27 billion per year.
  • Loss of productivity and overheads – an active smoker costs employers over $4000 every year (loss of productivity). Additionally, a smoker incurs a $35 in healthcare costs per every pack smoked, which is something that’s calculated into all insurance premiums.

Is Banning Cigarettes the Right Way to Curb the Smoking Epidemic?

I want to say right off the bat that I’m not a legal expert and that I have no experience in fighting global epidemics. All I can offer is my two cents (like most of us here), so take everything at a face value.

A flat out ban on cigarettes wouldn’t be that much different than the US National Prohibition, which banned alcohol. Now, we all know that the Prohibition was a failure because we can all order a shot of whatever we want in our local bar these days, but does that mean that it wasn’t effective? According to the research that NY Times picked up, Prohibition was pretty successful in stopping people from drinking and resolving a myriad of other related problems (liver cirrhosis, abuse, accidents).

On the other hand, the US has been waging a war on drugs for decades now, and has some really bad results to show for it. The CDC has been keeping track of fatal overdoses (includes opioids, stimulants, and other), and the data shows that all have been on the rise since 2000.

So, one ban worked but was discontinued, while the other is in full effect with absolutely no results. Which way would a ban on smoking swing? It’s difficult to say. What’s important to note is that the tobacco industry is a legal industry with many stakeholders. For that reason, smoking wouldn’t be easy to ban, even if there was a general consensus on the matter.

Over-regulation or Education – That’s the Question

I tried to offer an even-handed view of pros and cons of banning smoking in this post but, still, I feel that it is the wrong question to ask. A flat out ban would infringe on all of our rights and would just be too much to stomach.

However, there is a solution to the smoking epidemic and it’s not a ban. The solution lies in educating young adults about the dangers of smoking, as well as providing current smokers with access to effective smoking cessation methods. If the government wanted to do something about smoking, the first step would need to be calling off the FDA of their hunt after electronic cigarettes. That, more than any ban, would give smokers an opportunity to get rid of a life-threatening habit and it wouldn’t infringe on anyone’s right to choose.

Where do you stand? Do you think that smoking should be banned? Or do you feel that people need to have a choice? Drop down by the comment section and let’s discuss!