As a risk factor for six of the eight leading causes of death in the world, tobacco-use has quickly evolved from an after work pleasure into a full-on public health crisis — killing an estimated six million people around the globe each year.
One possible intervention: Ban them.
Banning cigarettes — like a bill recently proposed by Hawaiian State House members would do — would represent the most substantial public health crisis intervention in recent U.S. history, while also dramatically reducing air pollution stemming from cigarette smoke. This all comes with the added benefit of eliminating the notoriously unethical tobacco industry altogether.
Such a measure, which would ideally be an incremental step in a broader effort to solve the nicotine addiction crisis, would have an invariably positive impact on the health of tobacco users and the overall population.
Admittedly averse to the idea of free citizens coerced into moving from tobacco to e-cigarettes, the Hawaiian State House Bill is clear in its regard for cigarette smoking and its effects on the human population, rightly singling out cigarettes as “the deadliest artifact in human history.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “smoking causes approximately one of every four deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD),” the leading cause of death in the world since 2002. Another study reveals smokers are two to four times more susceptible to invasive diseases, including common bacterial and viral infections, influenzas and tuberculosis.
This list goes on and on, but most importantly, in the United States alone, cigarette smoking accounts for an estimated 480,000 deaths per year, “including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.”
Notwithstanding the significant health risks posed by cigarette smoke, the World Health Organization (WHO) also indicates that cigarette smoking accounts for a substantial amount of carbon dioxide and methane released into the atmosphere.
Despite significant emissions concerns, air pollution represents only a single dimension of the multi-dimensional environmental impact of tobacco smoke on the world.
According to the WHO, cigarette butts — the most commonly discarded waste item in the world — contain “hazardous substances” that “affect the quality” of municipal drinking water across the globe.
One report by the National Fire Protection Association from 2012-2016 indicates that materials used to smoke cigarettes start 5% of all home structure fires in the United States.
The wide-spread negative impact of cigarette smoking on the health and safety of the American people is and hasbeen abundantly clear. It begs the question: Although freedom is a central tenet of American life, when does smoking cease to be a personal privilege?
In liberal societies, individual liberties are only revoked when they begin, without consent, to harm the people around them. Wherever that precious, discretionary line between freedom and safety resides, the deaths of 41,000 non-smoking Americans from secondhand smoke exposure is a signal that the line has been crossed.
While the complete disbanding of the tobacco industry comes at a considerable cost to the U.S. economy, any economic cost incurred must also be placed next to the human price already being paid. Nothing can suffice to outweigh the price of the American people’s health at the expense of something wholly and entirely preventable.
But, truthfully, this is no call to bring down the entire tobacco industry tomorrow; however, now is the time to dedicate a significant amount of federal funding and resources to research.
Legislators, in coordination with civil society, should seek bipartisan support and develop contingency plans that ensure the future economic stability of the leading tobacco-producing regions, geographically centralized in the southeastern United States, that would bear a disproportionate amount of the cost associated with a federal cigarette ban.
In-depth assessments of the economic cost and the health risks associated with wide-spread withdrawal as well as increased regulation of the e-cigarette industry are necessary precursors to an institutionalized ban on cigarettes.
And if a federal ban isn’t feasible, legislators should explore other remedies too.
Like many of the policy changes proposed by the World Health Organization, the United States could enforce strict bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. The government could subsidize programs or even products designed to help tobacco users shake their habit. The potential policy solutions are endless where the wherewithal exists.
In a real economic sense, the increasing cost to human capital incurred on behalf of cigarette smoking is a crisis in and of itself. Instituting a federal ban on cigarette sales may very well yield the best long-term outcome for hundreds of millions of Americans in the present and future, even despite the temporary economic cost and loss of personal liberty.
While it may not yet be time to ban cigarettes altogether, now is — undoubtedly — the time to take a measured look at all of the options available to us.
Hancen Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.
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