Editorial: Tobacco, the Newest Drug 4/24/98

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(Note: The following is an exploration of issues common to the tobacco debate and illicit drug policy, and does not represent the position of the organization. DRCNet does not at this point have a position on how the currently illegal drugs would be best regulated in a post-prohibition system, nor on whether or how regulation of the currently legal drugs should be modified. We do have ascribe to the philosophy that regulations should not be so restrictive as to cause prohibition-like harms.)

Observers of drug policy are beginning to realize that their field is about to be exponentially expanded thanks to the federal government's escalating war on tobacco. That tobacco, or rather the nicotine in tobacco, is a drug, and cigarettes a "delivery system" is a fairly new concept, but it is undoubtedly true. And as surely as the effects of nicotine addiction will kill 400,000 Americans this year, we can be certain that the federal government will do everything in its power to make things worse under the predictable guise of "protecting" children.

Like all American drug policies, the federal government's plans for tobacco will give rise to numerous unintended consequences. And like all American drug policies, our elected officials are acting as if they are immune from common sense on the issue. They seem determined to ignore not only America's parallel experiences with other substances, but also the well-documented experiences of other countries in trying to address this problem.

The first step on the road toward empowering the government to prohibit tobacco will be a tax of $1.10 on every pack of cigarettes sold. This step is designed to price the killer weed out of the range of kids' allowances. This tactic, prohibitive taxes designed to discourage consumption, has been adopted before, most notably in Germany and Canada. In both nations, a lucrative black market materialized almost instantly. In Germany, forty "tobacco-related" murders were recorded in the first year of the tax. Both nations quickly abandoned the experiment.

One need not be a student of political science to predict a likely tobacco war scenario. Bootlegged cigarettes, either diverted directly from American factories or else smuggled back into the country from abroad, become a staple of the underground economy. In response, new federal agencies spring up to handle enforcement. Penalties are increased as it becomes apparent that current sentences are deterring neither street-level dealers nor the vast organized crime organizations trafficking tobacco through their existing networks. In order to offset the new costs associated with tobacco, and the loss of tax revenue due to large-scale diversion, per-pack taxes rise further, making the black market even more lucrative.

To the shock and horror of both parents and legislators, tobacco's new identity as a counter-culture status symbol leads to an explosion in teen (and pre-teen) use. It is now almost universally "cool" among the middle school set to possess and use tobacco. In response, hordes of children enter the trade, supplementing their allowances and financing their own use.

As name brand cigarettes become more expensive to smuggle, small-time operations begin to grow and produce their own cigarettes, filterless and of questionable content. Enforcement, concentrated in less affluent areas as those in the upper income brackets continue to pay the tax on legal product, disproportionately affects non-whites and immigrants. Law enforcement across the country begins to succumb to yet another easily corrupting influence, and respect for the law as a whole takes another, devastating hit. Failing to get a handle on the growing problem, congress and the president declare an all-out "War on Tobacco" pushing through legislation with an eye toward total criminal prohibition.

It is not as farfetched as it might seem. At a median income level of $25,000 per year, even $1.10 per pack will adversely impact the average smoker. That the product is addictive insures that rather than quit, many will pay the price until a cheaper (if illegal) alternative source can be found. A New York Times survey (4/22) revealed that most underage smokers, the ones who are supposed to be deterred by the increase, will continue to buy cigarettes.

American society, in the proud tradition of alcohol prohibition and the drug war, is about to embark on yet another substance-induced folly. As always, its intentions are noble. As always, its logic is fatally flawed. It is disheartening, to say the least, that the people we have elected to represent us to the Republic are either unwilling or incapable of learning from relevant history, either our own or anyone else's. Perhaps, as we begin to witness the impact of this "new" public policy, the American people will begin to make the connections, and to re-think our policies on all demonized substances. But as our leadership once again uses the failures of the policy to justify more of the same, that realization may take awhile. In the meantime, perhaps we ought to just begin by using that $1.10 per pack to start building prisons.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director

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Issue #39, 4/24/98 Medical Marijuana Protesters Have Charges Dropped | Clinton Administration Declares Syringe Exchange Safe and Effective: But Will Not Lift Ban | Soros Pledges Additional $1 Million for Needle Exchanges in US | Hemispheric Leaders Pledge Cooperation in Global Drug War | Belgium Decriminalizes Cannabis | Editorial: Tobacco, the Newest Drug

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