Imagine how puzzled an alien researcher would feel on the earth dwellers’ relationship with cigarettes. It is unreasonably dangerous, killing half of its long-term users, and is so addictive that about 80 percent of smokers keep smoking. World Health Organization (WHO) called on countries to raise taxes on tobacco to curb its consumption on May 31, World No Tobacco Day. But the alien research is very likely to question the legal status of cigarettes on most of the earth’s surface, and may conclude banning its sale would increase, rather than restrict, human liberties.
Smoking is the biggest killer in modern societies, but it hides so well that most people may feel shocked to learn its bloody crimes. In U.S., one in five deaths every year is due to smoking. And it kills more people than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries and firearm-related incidents combined. Cigarette smoking has taken 10 times more U.S. citizens lives than all the wars in U.S. history. More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer. In the world, one in 10 tobacco-related moralities is non-smoker dying from second-hand smoking.
U.S. citizens recognized the deadly effect of cigarettes long ago and give them many names, such as “coffin nails,” “little white slavers,” “dope sticks,” “devil’s toothpicks,” “Satan sticks,” “coffin pills” and “little while devils.” Congress refused to prohibit cigarettes at the federal level, but in 1892 the Senate Committee on Epidemic Diseases suggested the remedies for such a public health hazard should be determined at the state level.
In 1893, C.T. Roscoe, a Republican state legislator, sponsored the law that made Washington the first state to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone. During late 1800s and early 1900s, a total of 15 states prohibited the sale and manufacture of cigarettes. In Austin v. Tennessee (1900) the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of states to enact such bans. By 1925, all but 11 states had at least considered such legislation. This showed the underlying faith of legislators in the power of government to protect the public by regulating private behavior.
In Washington, the law to prohibit cigarette sales was repealed and reinstated multiple times, and tightened in 1909 to prohibit the possession of cigarettes. The enforcement was reported to be haphazard and tended to focus on rural areas. In 1911, cigarettes were legalized on the ground that such prohibition is unenforceable. Some experts think the eventual disappearing of such bans were due to industry pressure and the lure of tax revenues.
The debate on whether the cigarette is a legitimate subject for legislative action has continued till now. It must be emphasized that the elimination of smoking is not the goal of a liberal society, and the possession of cigarettes should not be criminalized. Rather, the goal of such legislation should focus on banning their sales and societal liberties would increase as a result. The two prevalent reasons against such legislation are the lessons from prohibition of alcohol and its restriction on liberties, but both are inadequate under a careful examination.
The addiction nature of cigarettes makes their regulation very different from prohibition of alcohol, as drinking was a more recreational drug. Smoking is not like drinking, but like being an alcoholic. A ban on the sale of cigarettes would still allow people to grow their own for personal use if they so choose.
For strict civil libertarians, the Harm Principle is the only legitimate basis of law. It states that laws are justified if they prevent individuals from causing harm to others. If smokers consume cigarettes without causing other people “passive smoking”, is it logical to consider banning cigarette sales is unjustified and hurting liberties?
Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen does not agree. On the individual freedom, Dr. Sen pointed out that the freedom to such habit-forming behavior today restricts the freedom of the same person in the future, as quitting such an addictive habit is hard once acquired. On the civil liberties, he asked who exactly the “others” are. Passive smokers are not the only “others” being affected. When smokers fall ill, society can either deny their access to public resources or sharing the public services with them. The latter is what most nations are doing and thus everyone within the society suffers an undue harm to their own liberties, as non-smokers cannot agree to send societal assistance to victims of self-choice.
To ban the commercial transaction would significantly reduce the circulation of cigarettes, thus fewer young people might start the hard-to-kick habit of smoking, and more people might have an easier process of quitting. The burden caused by smokers’ self-harming behavior on the public resources would gradually lessen, therefore the societal liberties would be increased if the sale of cigarettes is banned.
Opinion by Tina Zhang