Thursday, November 04, 2010

Against tobacco prohibition

Yesterday, the Māori Affairs Committee published its Inquiry into the tobacco industry in Aotearoa and the consequences of tobacco use for Maori [PDF], in which they called for New Zealand to be a smoke-free nation by 2025. In other words, ban tobacco.

I oppose this for two reasons. Firstly, on straight-out liberal grounds: if it harms only themselves, then what informed, consenting adults stick into their bodies is really none of my business. And secondly, on practical ones. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1933. It doesn't work for other drugs now. It simply provides criminal networks with a ready-made income stream, while ensuring that the products are unsafe and the resulting public health problems harder to deal with.

But while their headline goal should be a non-starter, several of their other recommendations are quite sensible. Making tobacco companies (which means ultimately smokers) pay for the cost of addiction treatment and public health campaigns. Banning "powerwalls" and requiring plain packaging to prevent tobacco companies from marketing by stealth. Requiring them to publish more product information, and regulating additives to prevent them from masking the taste of their product. And of course hiking excise taxes to ensure that the public health costs are fully met.

The fact that 50% of smokers interviewed by Campbell Live wanted tobacco banned so they could give up [video] suggests addiction issues are serious, and provides a strong mandate to make tobacco companies provide them and make their product less addictive. But it does not provide a mandate for an outright ban. But there's a lot we can do, without going that far, to make it easier for those who want to to give up, and to help ensure that tobacco companies can't push them into addiction.