Not Even Tobacco Is Safe

Opponents of the drug war have long criticized the legislative hypocrisy of allowing alcohol and even subsidizing tobacco while prohibiting, even imprisoning people over, comparatively less dangerous substances. Critics of the FDA have long pointed out that its oppressive guidelines, if applied to tobacco, would lead to its illegality or at least very strict control.

The House has overwhelmingly voted to empower the FDA to regulate tobacco. The agency would not be able to ban it, but it would be able to severely restrict the industry.

Big Tobacco has tended to favor government restrictions on illicit drugs, and sometimes the banning of tobacco products not produced by the biggest companies. It is an industry largely in bed with the state. Its power, as well as the American culture’s long embrace of tobacco, have kept the war on tobacco limited. It has increasingly been taxed and driven off of commercial property, a violation of property rights surely, but it has been more than tolerated compared to more controlled substances. There is also the more important cultural value at play—the American dedication to individual liberty. But that has been a waning protection against state encroachment for at least a century, and alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs among other programs have undermined the devotion to personal responsibility and rights necessary for a culture to stand up for the rights of a shrinking minority.

Fewer people smoke and people smoke less, which is good. This has been done in a relatively liberal environment so far—education and cultural trends have played at least as much a role as the sin taxes, and those are not nearly as draconian as jail time. Notably, Americans are healthier with respect to tobacco than they used to be, despite having no government crusade against them as well-funded and militaristic as the war on drugs.

But as this group shrinks and the relative power of the tobacco industry shrinks in light of today’s very large events in political economy, and assuming Americans continue to neglect the issue of personal liberty at stake, the government’s efforts to control and minimize tobacco could pick up more steam and begin to resemble elements of outright prohibition.

For the time being, tobacco will continue to be increasingly marginalized, demonized and controlled, but not banned. I believe the powers that be prefer the tobacco industry and the taxes and subsidies and regulations to the prospect of banning tobacco. But years down the line, if the number of Americans who enjoy tobacco diminishes significantly, it’s not impossible anymore to imagine it being banned. This country did ban alcohol, after all, and it’s hard to be surprised any more by the modern American state’s pretenses of omnipotence.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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