If you liked alcohol prohibition …


"It is inconceivable ... that the most deadly product legally sold in the United States is exempt from federal regulation," The Washington Post editorialized on Jan. 2.
 
"The new Congress should pass legislation that would give the FDA authority to regulate Big Tobacco," the Postmen continued.

"For too long, cigarette makers have decided what’s safe for consumers. Their concern for the health of smokers — or lack thereof — has led them to disguise the dangers of their products with labels such as 'light' and 'low tar,' and to lure young smokers by peddling candy-flavored cigarettes. The proposed legislation would eliminate such misleading labels and severely curtail Big Tobacco’s ability to market to youths. The legislation would also require tobacco companies to disclose the ingredients in their products and place larger warning labels on cigarette packs. Most significant, it would give the FDA the latitude to take further steps to curb addiction, such as requiring the removal of harmful additives. ...

"The proposed economic stimulus bill will be Congress’ top priority, but legislation regulating Big Tobacco shouldn’t be far behind. ... With Obama in the White House, and a strong Democratic majority in the Senate, there are fewer obstacles — and no excuses. By regulating tobacco, the new Congress can secure an early, bipartisan victory that would help set the tone for the rest of the session."
 
It's hard to know whether those who issue such calls are really ignorant of where such a step would likely lead, or whether they're engaging in purposeful subterfuge.

First, so long as insecticides and rat poisons are mass-marketed, I suspect tobacco falls far short of being "the most deadly product legally sold in the United States."

I don't buy cigarettes, myself, so I suppose it's possible there are some major brands flavored to taste like chocolate-covered cherries that simply haven't come to my attention ... though I doubt it. 

There's certainly good evidence that smoking increases certain health risks. Those who smoke would be well advised to stop. Those who consider starting should not. But plenty of other legal adult activities — motorcycle riding and sky-diving come to mind — can also increase our health risks.

If cigarettes are currently "unregulated," where did all those existing, government-mandated health warnings come from?

I agree that "low nicotine" cigarettes are ridiculous. But I wonder how Congress and their enablers at the Post would react if a major manufacturer announced they were going to start marketing a cigarette with "twice the nicotine — they're safer because you inhale half as much smoke to get the same effect"?

Why do I think such honesty would not be greeted with cheers of approbation, from those who currently ridicule "light" and "low tar" smokes?

But the main point here is that the Food and Drug Administration — which despite the lack of any constitutional authorization might be OK if they would stick to their original mission, which was simply to guarantee accuracy of labeling as to ingredients, dose, and potency — is currently set up to ask one simple question: Does the drug in question offer benefits that outweigh its risks, and how should distribution be restricted to improve that balance?

It's unlikely the FDA would find the medical benefits of tobacco outweigh its risks for human consumption. It's therefore likely the FDA, after some modest foot-dragging, would impose a de facto tobacco Prohibition, at least as severe as the alcohol Prohibition of 1919-1933.

In these troubled economic times, I suppose creating a new market niche for the tobacco-user's equivalent of the speakeasy — call it the "smoke-easy" — might generate some new employment opportunities. But if you're unfamiliar with the lawlessness and gang warfare prompted by alcohol Prohibition — when wholesalers and tavern owners had no recourse to the courts to enforce their distribution deals, and so turned to the Tommy gun — you might want to do a little reading up, before you join with the fellows at the Post in calling for a de facto new Prohibition, driving 21 percent of adult Americans to turn to the underworld in search of their favorite fix.

It's also worth noting that hard liquor only became vastly popular in this country after Prohibition made it a more profitable commodity to smuggle than wine and beer — and that morphine and heroin only became popular after the banning of the opium den.

Want to see clever black-market entrepreneurs develop a far more portable, concealable, and addictive form of nicotine? Let's go.