The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership

Sort archived Free Market articles by: Title | Author | Article Date | Subject

October 1995
Volume 13, Number 10


Are Cigarettes Doomed?
Mark Thornton

Some Americans are no doubt touched by Bill Clinton's concern for the health of children. His press secretary even declared that it was now the President's personal responsibility to prevent American youth from smoking. 

But Clinton's ten-point program to prevent teenage smoking, designed by FDA Czar-for-Life David Kessler, will fail like all previous attempts at government nannyism. Worse yet, the program will backfire and retrace some of the progress already made in tobacco consumption. There is also no doubt that all Americans will be "touched" to pay for this program. 

The main thrust of the program is to prevent teenagers from smoking so that they won't grow into adult smokers. It sounds innocuous enough, almost sensible, but Kessler's stated goal is to eliminate all smoking and all tobacco use. He won't stop at the vending machine when his policy turns up "out of order." He is quick to remind us that the FDA is not prohibiting tobacco use; that would be--in his words--"unworkable." That means that he would like to prohibit it but does not yet have permission to do so. 

The Administration touts this policy initiative as a measure to help children and reduce the cost of health care. Let us not forget that the Clintons wanted to place a $2/pack tax on cigarettes to fund their health care reforms and discourage the use of tobacco. In reality, this is but one of the socialist ideas built into the Clintons' sidetracked nationalized health care agenda. 

Can we be surprised? If government pays for health care, it eventually assumes the right to control the health of its citizens. This agenda also includes such possible policy initiatives as forced sterilization, increased use of birth control and abortion, a euthanasia program, a national exercise program, an enhanced anti-alcohol program, youth brainwashing to encourage children to rat on their parents, sanctions on fat people, taxes on luxury goods, controls on the environment, banning of dangerous sports, therapy for drug addicts, etc. 

Of course, things could be worse. As Robert N. Proctor recounts in Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis (Harvard University Press, 1988), Gerhard Wagner--head of the Nazi socialized medical plan--like Kessler and other anti-tobacco agitators today, was constantly complaining about people smoking. 

In particular Wagner attacked the "boundless propaganda issued by nearly every German magazine" encouraging people to smoke. His replacement, Leonardo Conti, established the Bureau Against the Dangers of Alcohol and Tobacco. Nazi health officials pointed out that personal health was now an integral part of the German national interest, and that according to Nazi philosophy, "the good of the whole comes before the good of the individual." 

Despite all of the protests that they would not ban tobacco, the Nazis soon began to ration cigarettes, close tobacco shops, force several types of citizens to stop smoking, and abolish smoking in buses, trains, government buildings, and public places. 

Does that sound like the U.S. today? Higher excise taxes, required warning labels, government-imposed bans in planes and government buildings, attacks on advertisers, tobacco industry executives, and scientists. 

The Nazis never reached their ultimate goal because military\economic collapse came before tobacco supplies were exhausted. But here, we have the "Smoke Free America 2000" program in place. And Kessler is backed by a newly vindicated federal smoke police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). 

The Smoke Free America program will seek to use all voluntary means possible to eliminate smoking in America by the year 2000. Only at that point will more "convincing" means be applied to completely eradicate the problem. The target deadline provides the haunting reminder that millenialism is still with us and driving policy. 

Ideology and philosophy aside, governmental attempts to stop smoking have always failed. Several states passed cigarette prohibitions during the Progressive Era that failed miserably, as did the more ruthless efforts of the Nazis. Canada recently tried a massive antitobacco program that raised the price of cigarettes to $5 a pack with absolutely no success or diminution in teenage smoking. The programs now advocated by Clinton and Kessler have all been tried and failed at the state and local levels; what makes them so sure that they will now work at the national level? 

Making cigarettes more difficult to get is not so much a hurdle for teenagers as it is a challenge. Although widely supported by both Republicans and Democrats, it certainly doesn't seem to be in the spirit of family values to have the government, rather than parents, involved in this decision. 

The battle between teenager and bureaucrat will come down to a matter of enforcement. If enforcement is lax, teenagers will easily obtain cigarettes and learn disrespect for law. If enforcement is draconian, teenagers will have more difficulty in obtaining cigarettes and we will all lose civil liberties in the process. In both cases, teenagers will get cigarettes and the foundations of American society will be further eroded. 

Kessler says that the government will do everything it can to raise the cost of smoking until teenagers stop smoking. Let's see. Government has increased the price of marijuana by 10,000%, but teenagers still buy it. In fact, as the government increases the cost of tobacco, and makes it more difficult to get, we can expect to see an increase in teenage use of marijuana and other substitute products. 

In response to predictable failure and frustration, the next steps will include a drastic increase in the tobacco excise tax and direct FDA regulation of tobacco as a drug. The tobacco excise tax route is particularly instructive of the government's ability or lack thereof to solve social problems. Higher excise taxes fall heavily on the poor and encourage people to smoke high tar and filterless cigarettes. If excise taxes are high enough, people resort to smuggling and the black market, as the Canadian experience clearly proves. 

If the central government decides instead to allow the FDA to tax and regulate tobacco as a drug, then we are but a short time from a full-blown tobacco prohibition. Remember that narcotics prohibition and marijuana prohibition were initiated as regulatory and taxation measures. Once in the bureaucratic domain, however, these programs were quickly transmuted into outright prohibitions. 

There is no doubt that this is exactly what Kessler wants, and exactly what he would do, given the opportunity. Under his interpretation of his powers and mandates, control of tobacco would mean the prohibition of its use because, as he sees it, tobacco possesses no useful or beneficial properties. The FDA and BATF would both gain considerably as a result. 

Much progress has been made in the safe use of tobacco products. People forget that people used to chew and spit tobacco on a grand scale. Public rooms were filled with pipe and cigar smoke. But without any help or prodding by government, the market responded with the ready-rolled cigarette, then filtered cigarettes, then low and ultralow tar cigarettes. We've even got the smokeless ashtray. The industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars to invent a tar-less and smokeless cigarette. The government won't let them market it. 

Economic progress also tends to result in less tobacco consumed. If government were really interested in reducing smoking and promoting health, they wouldn't interfere with the role of the family and self-responsibility. 

One of the best keys to promoting health is what economists call time preference. Mature people have a low time preference, a longer time horizon. They have high rates of saving and capital accumulation and practice healthier lifestyles. 

People with high time preference tend to live for the moment, spend more than they earn, and engage in risky activities and unhealthy lifestyles. Policies that promote free enterprise and individual responsibility have the positive effect of reducing time preferences while government nannyism, like the welfare state itself, increases time preference and exacerbates the problems of irresponsibility. 

Clinton's concern for "our children," or at least the ones his attorney general isn't gassing, and Kessler's worry about our health, are but a smokescreen for totalitarian political ambition. That's what's behind curbs on advertising, bans on vending machines, and phony tobacco "education" campaigns.


Mark Thornton is the O.P Alford III scholar for the Mises Institute and teaches Economics at Columbus State College


Close Window