The fact that smoking is deadly is no secret. It has become such widespread knowledge that it is now a platitude repeated over and over again in schools, at the doctor’s office, and even on TV. Yet as self-evident as the dangers of smoking are, cigarettes are still as easy to get as a bottle of water. So the nagging question remains: why don’t government simply ban recreational tobacco use? It seems like a simple question, but the answer is conversely complex. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons governments turn a blind eye to the possibility of banning cigarettes in order to better understand the polemics surrounding the tobacco debate.
Free will. This is a concept that is a major driving force behind the tobacco debate and it shows up on both sides of the aisle. Those of us who know that smoking is a habit believe in free will; we believe that smoking is a choice and that each person has the power to make the healthier choice: to quit smoking. On the other hand, those of us who promote tobacco believe that each person has the free choice to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body. However, the problem with the pro-tobacco use of free will is that it has no limits—at what point do you say that an individual does not have the right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body (or to the bodies of others). It is faulty reasoning that leads down the dangerous path of justifying poor and unhealthy choices. Conversely, the conception of free will held by anti-smoking advocates is not about allowing everything, but about exercising good judgment: anti-smoking free will is about enabling and empowering people to make healthy choices and helping them feel responsible enough to do so. You may be wondering what all of this has to do with governments completely banning tobacco, but it read on and you will see that misusing the concept of free will has everything to do with the continued presence of cigarettes on the market.
One reason that tobacco has survived on the market as long as it has is because government officials fear that impinging on people’s free will by banning cigarettes will do nothing but lead to black markets and backlashes like those that often accompany controlled substance prohibitions. Government officials often claim that they can at least keep smokers safer by regulating the industry and circumventing the crime and violence associated with black market activities. They claim they don’t want to control people too much—they want them to be allowed to exercise their free will. If this was really governments’ motive behind keeping tobacco legal, then it would be a good argument worth pondering. Unfortunately, governments use the “we-don’t-want-to-impinge-upon-free-will-because-of-black-markets” argument as a smoke screen to blind the public the real reason why cigarettes haven’t been outlawed: money.
The United States’ Office on Smoking and Health, a branch of the Center for Disease Control, reports that the American government makes rakes in almost 6 billion dollars a year in tax revenue from cigarettes. According to Tobacco in Australia, revenue generated from taxing tobacco exceeds 6 billion AUD a year. So let’s be blunt: tobacco is a cash cow for governments. They may appeal to some kind of morality about free will and fear of black markets when they publicly discuss why they don’t outright outlaw tobacco, but the truth is that they need the money they get from taxing Big Tobacco. Plain and simple.
Now, don’t read any of this the wrong way. If tobacco was outlawed tomorrow, then you bet your bottom dollar there would be a black market for it just as there is for all illegal substances. And the fact that people can make choices and control their own lives is vital to the health of humans and the democratic system. However, with respect to the tobacco debate, it is time to start seeing clearly the fact that governments and Big Tobacco are Big Allies. Governments should exist to serve and protect their citizens, watching out for their best interests and keeping them safe from harm. As overly idealistic as it sounds, that is there job and with respect to smoking it seems that they are prioritizing money over lives, a situation that time and time again proves fatal not only to individuals, but also to societies. It is time for governments to take a stronger stand against Big Tobacco and start prioritizing health over profit. Whether or not that will ever happen, however, is another story for another day.