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Toward an Effective Solution
In principle, the most effective solution to the tremendous problem of cigarette smoking in the U.S. would simply be to impose legislation banning the manufacture, sale, or consumption of cigarettes altogether. In fact, it is impossible to justify any logical distinction between the current illegal status of marijuana (at the federal level and in almost all of the individual states) and the fact that a slightly different cultivated vegetation that is empirically linked to almost half a million preventable premature deaths annually is still perfectly legal to market at great financial profits. However, from a practical perspective, the U.S. already had experience during the Prohibition era of the 1920s with the difficulties of trying to ban alcohol. In addition to widespread violation by otherwise law-abiding citizens, that ban created such a tremendous opportunity for profit associated with the black market production and distribution of alcohol that the organized criminal gangs that emerged from that era still operate today in the form of the most notorious modern organized crime syndicates. Moreover, thousands died or were blinded from unregulated alcohol production at that time (Goldfield, Abbot, Argersinger, et al., 2005). Unfortunately, simply criminalizing tobacco products would likely only create a lucrative black market in the same fashion.
On the other hand, it might be possible to create different types of legislation that could, over time and several generations, effectively reduce cigarette smoking substantially among the American population. In fact, one of the most insidious aspects of cigarette marketing could provide the means for such a mechanism. Specifically, one of the most damaging pieces of information to be disclosed in the 1990s by the revelations about the truth behind tobacco company marketing communications is the degree to which tobacco companies deliberately focus their efforts on new smokers (Cummings & Pollay, 2002).
By definition, "new smokers" means young, first-time smokers, for several reasons." First, all of the cigarette brands advertised in the U.S. are owned by only a very small number of tobacco companies. Therefore, there is little revenue to be gained by convincing smokers to switch brands in the first place, in addition to which, smokers are notoriously loyal to their chosen brands (Mintz & Torry, 1998). That means the majority of the revenue available to cigarette manufacturers must come from new smokers. Second, the tobacco companies are well aware (as their internal communications proved) that the vast majority of smokers begin smoking as teenagers and that so few individuals begin smoking for the first time as adults that the industry would be unsustainable without the continual cultivation of new (i.e. teenage) smokers (Mintz & Torry, 1998).
Unfortunately, state legislation requiring proof of age (most commonly at 18) has obviously not been very effective at reducing smoking among teenagers. Across the international community, efforts to reduce smoking have been similar to those currently relied upon in the U.S.: namely, criminalizing the sale of tobacco products to minors, prohibiting the display of tobacco products in certain kinds of advertising media or in entertainment media in connection with young-appearing performers, and by imposing high sales taxes as an economic disincentive to purchasing cigarettes. Unfortunately, none of those measures has proven particularly successful because large percentages of young people continue to begin smoking and to become adult smokers.
The best approach to reduce the harms caused by smoking in the U.S. would include the following measures: (1) Raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 through the same federal funding incentives that already promote the minimum age of 18 in state law; (2) Increase the severity of penalties for providing cigarettes to underage smokers; (3) Increasing the severity of criminal penalties against underage smokers; (4) Require mandatory reporting of underage smoking by parents under penalty of law; (5) Increasing the taxes on cigarettes in general; (6) Imposing the costs of enforcement on the cigarette companies whose products are identified in the possession of underage smokers.
In principle, this approach would, in effect, criminalize the behaviors associated with underage smoking without interfering with the rights of adults who already smoke. It recognizes the futility of trying to apply strict Prohibition-style measures while creating sufficient disincentive among teenagers, parents, tobacco product retailers, and tobacco companies to significantly reduce the availability of cigarettes to teenagers. Over time and several generations, it is conceivable that such an approach would significantly reduce smoking in society by virtue of the natural fact that relatively few smokers start smoking over the age of 21.
Currently, the costs of healthcare in the U.S. are rapidly increasing so fast that they are threatening the future solvency of the nation, not mention that adequate healthcare is already unavailable to substantial numbers of Americans because of their inability to afford basic health insurance. Without changing any other aspect of healthcare, eliminating the risks that are directly attributable to smoking would save almost half a million lives annually while reducing the billions spent on the ailments suffered by smokers between the time that they first become ill and die, as well as on all of the human illness caused by smoking that does not necessarily result in death.
Because of its addictive quality and in light of this nation's experience with the Alcohol Prohibition-era approach in the 1920s, it is unlikely that criminalizing cigarettes would provide a feasible means of resolving the problem. However, by dramatically increasing law enforcement efforts and focusing them directly on all of the behaviors associated with and responsible for teenage smoking, it is conceivable that smoking could be very substantially reduced if not eliminated entirely within a few generations. Failure to do so will result in the continued loss of many lives and at the tremendous expense of public funds and other valuable resources.
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