We should celebrate our success curbing cigarette smoking but let's not get carried away and think that criminalizing smoking is the answer
The war on cigarettes is heating up. This week a new federal ban went into effect making flavored and clove cigarettes and illegal.
The new regulation halted the sale of vanilla and chocolate cigarettes that anti-smoking advocates claim lure young people into smoking. This ban is the first major crackdown since Congress passed a law in June giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco. There is talk of banning menthol cigarettes next.
Meanwhile, another major initiative to limit smoking wafted out of New York City last week.
A report to Mayor Michael Bloomberg from the city's health commissioner called for a smoking ban at city parks and beaches to help protect citizens from the harms of secondhand smoke. To his credit, Bloomberg rejected this measure, citing concern over stretched city and police resources.
While I support many restrictions on public smoking, such as at restaurants and workplaces, and I appreciate public education campaigns and efforts aimed at discouraging young people from smoking, I believe the outdoor smoking ban and prohibition of cloves and possibly menthols will lead to harmful and unintended consequences. All we have to do is look at the criminalization of other drugs, such as marijuana, to see some of the potential pitfalls and tragedies.
Cities across the country -- from New York to Santa Cruz, Calif. -- are considering or have already banned smoking at parks and beaches. I am afraid that issuing tickets to people for smoking outdoors could easily be abused by overzealous law enforcement.
Let's look at how New York handles another "decriminalized" drug in our state: marijuana. Despite decriminalizing marijuana more than 30 years ago, New York is the marijuana arrest capital of the world.
If possession of marijuana is supposed to be decriminalized in New York, how does this happen? Often it's because, in the course of interacting with the police, individuals are asked to empty their pockets, which results in the pot being "open to public view" -- which is, technically, a crime.
More than 40,000 people were arrested in New York City last year for marijuana possession, and 87 percent of those arrested were black or Latino, despite equal rates of marijuana use among whites. The fact is that blacks and Latinos are arrested for pot at much higher rates in part because officers make stop-and-frisk searches disproportionately in black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, when we make laws and place restrictions on both legal and illegal drugs, people of color are usually the ones busted. Drug use may not discriminate, but our drug policies and enforcement do.
Now let's look at the prohibition of cloves and other flavored cigarettes. When we prohibit certain drugs, it doesn't mean that the drugs go away and people don't use them; it just means that people get their drugs from the black market instead of a store or deli.
We've been waging a war on marijuana and other drugs for decades, but you can still find marijuana and your drug of choice in most neighborhoods and cities in this country.
For many people, cloves or menthols are their smoke of choice. I have no doubt that someone is going to step in to meet this demand.
What do we propose doing to the people who are caught selling illegal cigarettes on the street? Are cops going to have to expend limited resources to enforce this ban? Are we going to arrest and lock up people who are selling the illegal cigarettes? Prisons are already bursting at the seams (thanks to the drug laws) in states across the country. Are we going to waste more taxpayer money on incarceration?
The prohibition of flavored cigarettes also moves us another step closer to total cigarette prohibition. But with all the good intentions in the world, outlawing cigarettes would be just as disastrous as the prohibition of other drugs.
After all, people would still smoke, just as they still use other drugs that are prohibited, from marijuana to cocaine. But now, in addition to the harm of smoking, we would find a whole range of "collateral consequences," such as the black-market-related violence that crops up with prohibition.
Although we should celebrate our success curbing cigarette smoking and continue to encourage people to cut back or give up cigarettes, let's not get carried away and think that criminalizing smoking is the answer.
We need to realize that drugs, from cigarettes to marijuana to alcohol, will always be consumed, whether they are legal or illegal.
Although drugs have health consequences and dangers, making them illegal -- and keeping them illegal -- will only bring additional death and suffering.
By Tony Newman
September 25, 2009