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Feature: The Next Prohibition? Poll Finds Nearly Half of Americans Favor Banning Cigarettes

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.
tobacco field
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.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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It seems evident to me that

It seems evident to me that when asked about an issue such as whether or not cigarettes should be banned, a common mistake made by some people is to answer more or less thoughtlessly, based solely on his or her own bias, and therefore emotion, instead of deliberating on the issue in a rational, logical way. I wonder if the public were educated about all the disasterous implications/consequences of making cigarettes illegal would they maintain their original position. Unfortunetly, I tend to be a bit cynical. As rational as we would like to think we are, it is apparent that we're equally, if not, more emotionally oriented. I consider this a very important issue and am glad that the Alliance and DRC is taking it seriously.


Good to test the water now, but I caution that people may tend not to take the question seriously when it appears it's not seriously on the agenda. If such a policy were seriously being considered now, I think poll support for it would be at least a little less, and opposition to it considerably greater. I think the very fact that you're bringing out this poll now will help drive those numbers down, as people think, "WTF? The people around me actually think that?!"

Robert Goodman

Personal Responsibility, or "What's Next"

I'm sure this question has been asked before, but if cigarettes are banned, what will be the next scapegoat issue? Will "scientific research" find that obesity hurts future generations and therefore, people who refuse to eat right and who weigh more than the medically-correct amount, will be sent to jail? Just say "it's for the children" and no one would dare protest.

If Americans can not be personally responsible for their own health, why aren't we banning alcohol, fast food, candy, pastries, or whatever food is currently bad for you?

And, can anyone please tell me where I can find the actual statistics on second-hand smoke--a url would be great? Has science done any actual lab tests, or are we still using the anecdotal stories from the 1993 WHA report? As I've heard wildly varying numbers (for people killed each year), I have to wonder if people just make them up and because it's just a hot-button issue, there is no protest.

Thanks for listening,

Criminalize smoking

Nothing moves without politics in America. This is a political issue been exploited for votes because non-smokers are the majority. The majority makes new laws that defy common sense. The well organized interest groups pass thousands of new laws at the federal, state and local level every year that most people don't know about.


Makes me want to start smoking!
Most people are too stupid to think these issues through.
I'm off to drink some absinthe and to eat some transfat.

The bottom line: $

So, where do people get off regulating other's behavior?

I think that the basis for regulating lifestyle choices comes from the fact that some tax dollars go to public healthcare programs. I don't think that smoking should be made illegal, but I understand the notion of a non-smoker not wanting to pay for a smokers (presumably more expensive) healthcare. So, the real question is how should public healthcare dollars be allocated? Should smokers have less access to medicare/medicaid? Should people who exercise and eat healthy receive tax credits? How do personal responsibility and lifestyle choices factor into our individual "right" to healthcare access/dollars? Should the government spend our healthcare dollars most efficiently to extend the average lifespan (i.e. for each public dollar spent, acheive the maximum increase in expected lifespan)? Does quality of life factor into this decision?

In my opinion, the government should not atempt to regulate people's behavior, unless it harms others. Rather, the government should seek to disseminate clear, accurate information on a number of topics. The lifestyle decisions covered could include, education, diet, career, and drug use. The ultimate goal is to allow people to make informed decisions and then to have an element of personal responsibility associated with their personal choices.

PS If the claims of the harmful health consequences of 2nd-hand smoke are substantiated, then there may be a valid arguemetn for smokers actually inflicting harm on others, especially their children.

The healthy activity tax

The healthy activity tax credit makes the most sense (since the list of potentially ill-health-promoting products is virtually limitless). Now, how on earth would you enforce it in practice?

Personally I don't think anyone should claim second-hand smoke is harmless nor fight for rights to smoke any substance around kids/in locations where smoking is prohibited now. BTW, here's some CDC links on second-hand smoke research.

illegal cigarettes

I think it only fair that if cannabis is illegal that cigarettes also be. Ditto for alcohol. At least cannabis has real health benifits. Give the squares a taste of thier own medicine--criminalize cigarettes now.

great idea

In keeping with the great tradition of the War Against People Who Use Certain Drugs (ohterwise known as the Drug War) , I think making cigarettes illegal makes sense. It would further serve the purposes of the Drug War by giving police and our "just-us system"more excuses to infringe upon the rights of otherwise peaceful and law abiding poor people and people of color and enhance our defacto system of race segregation.

It would be great if they gave it a try

If cigarrettes were made illegal, the consequences would be so disastrous that before a year or two, the entire country will be begging to bring them back in the legal market. It would be a very rough thing to go through, offcourse, but imagine how many people will finally realize how stupid drug prohibition really is. Perhaps a few years later (and so many more years before we ever expected), all drugs would be legalized.


I think that everything should be legal. its America give us what we want.


oh my dear, i don't think you can quit smoking if you don't want to do it don't matter if the prohibition is on or off anyway your going to die!

Prohibition II.

I think cigarettes are awful packets of poison which are extremely bad for people, I personally hope I never start smoking. Despite my hatred of cigarettes, I think that banning cigarettes would have serious political, economic, and criminal repercussions. The amount of people currently addicted to cigarettes is phenomenal and it is most likely that these people will turn to the black market, opening a new age of bloody gang warfare, which has not been seen since the time of prohibition.

Activity of the poor/less educated

As we're seeing, young people don't know the results of alcohol prohibition and they're growing up in with the notion that it's OK to ban activities you don't like.

I think in a generation or two tobacco prohibition could be on the table. As tobacco continues to fall from fashion in the upper classes (our non-prohibitive efforts are working), lower class tobacco users will surely begin to be more aggressively demonized by the media. After a prohibition hit, remaining smokers would slowly gain arrest records and be pushed into poverty and criminal activity, which would aid statistics tying smoking to "criminal behavior". Tobacco would gain media fashion as the prime gateway drug it probably always has been.

By then, maybe the tobacco industry will have transitioned to some other vice, perhaps alcohol!


yes do that and begin the civil war here in america we so despertly need yes war its the only way to get our rights back .let the blood bath begin .that will shut these phohabitionists up for good live free or

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