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Aug 27, 2012

Prohibition on Tasmania's smoking speakeasies a bad idea

A proposed Tasmanian ban on selling cigarettes would be a prohibition-style flop, writes Martyn Goddard at Tasmanian Times.


The 18th amendment to the United States constitution came into force on January 29, 1920. The manufacture, sale, transportation import or export of intoxicating liquors was prohibited. Thus began the greatest social experiment, perhaps, in human history.

Tasmania is heading back to the 1920s by seeking to launch its own prohibition era — banning the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2000, effectively preventing the millenial generation from ever taking up the habit. Tasmanians who are now 12 years old would never be able (legally) to smoke as adults; those who are now 13 would be able to.

Tasmania’s upper house has unanimously passed a motion calling for the ban, the Labor-Green government says it will seriously consider the proposal, and the state’s Commissioner for Children is assessing it.

As the world — and Tasmanian politicians — should know, the US prohibition experiment failed. In 1933 came the 21st amendment, ending prohibition and regulating alcohol rather than banning it. Prohibition did not stop people drinking. Mostly, it changed the suppliers rather than the consumers. While the population went on drinking, those importing, making and selling the stuff ceased to be the owners of licensed, regulated businesses. Their role was immediately taken by organised criminals selling bootleg liquor, often of poor quality. The Mafia, Al Capone — and the FBI, which got massively increased funding and powers — did very well. The nation did badly.

In just 14 years that disastrous experiment, with the people of a nation as the guinea pigs, landed America with an organised crime problem with which they are still dealing. When prohibition ended, the mob changed its focus from alcohol to s-x and drugs, and from speakeasies to casinos.

But the lesson was not learnt. Prohibition was extended to a vast range of other drugs — opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis. The result was similar: a boom in organised crime and in law enforcement, poor quality drugs on the market, customers self-administering drugs of unknown strength and adulteration in conditions that invited disaster. Fatal overdoses followed in massive numbers. The high cost of illegal drugs led customers to inject, getting more bang for their buck but risking overdose, AIDS and Hepatitis C.

As drug prohibition spread around the world, crime followed. Criminal gangs took over whole countries. As insurgencies in Africa, Asia and South America looked around for a source of funding, their armies moved into the drugs trade.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, when the link between tobacco and lung cancer became undeniable, the lesson — for once — was learnt. No country has banned tobacco; the focus has been instead on regulation, education and control.

Australia has a good record. Fifty years ago, smoking among adults was almost ubiquitous: the rate has since plummeted. According to the 2011 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey, only 15.1% of Australians aged 14 and over were smoking every day. In Tasmania, the rate has gone from 24.4% in 1998 to 15.9% in 2011, with a dramatic drop between 2007 and 2011 due to price increases, and smoking bans in restaurants, bars and cars with kids. The debate over plain packaging may prove to be as beneficial in changing community attitudes as the measure itself.

Control over smoking is working. Most young people do not begin: this is revealed in the statistics on the numbers of people who have never smoked. Nationally, an extraordinary 57.8% (52.8% in Tasmania) have never used tobacco; another 24.1% (28.7% in Tasmania) have managed to kick the habit. Prohibition would destroy this extraordinarily successful strategy by placing tobacco use outside of the range of regulation and control.

Australia compares well with other nations, though almost everywhere — including in China and India — smoking is on the way out. According to the OECD, Australia is substantially better than the average both in the level of daily smoking and the rate at which young people are not starting.

Smoking rates of OECD nations in 2009 (%)

Those supporting Tasmania’s proposal to ban tobacco supply to everyone born after 2000 deny that it amounts to prohibition. But it does. It replaces the successful means of tobacco control we now have — education and regulation — with what will in time become a blanket ban.

As time passes, more and more people would become subject to Tasmania’s ban. Eventually it would become total. But nicotine is perhaps the most addictive of all recreational drugs. Anyone starting to smoke, at any time in their lives, has a significant chance of becoming addicted. There is already an illegal, criminal supply of tobacco, driven by increases in the excise paid on commercially available cigarettes. The history of drug prohibition shows that people who want a drug are likely to get it anyway, legally or illegally.

The patterns of cannabis use show how powerfully attractive a drug — even a relatively non-addictive one — can become, particularly to the young, if the allure of mild outlawry is bestowed upon it. Naughty is nice, even when it isn’t really nice at all.

It is a fantasy to say that this ban will result in a smoke-free generation. It won’t. It will lead instead to the criminalisation of an entire generation of law-abiding people. It will spawn a powerful and dangerous new pack of organised criminals, and the consequent corruption of police and officials. And it will mean, eventually, an end to our chances of genuine and effective tobacco control.

Nowhere else in the world has such a measure been enacted. Perhaps there’s a reason for that.

*Martyn Goddard is a former ABC journalist and an independent health policy analyst based in Hobart. This article was first published at Tasmanian Times.


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27 thoughts on “Prohibition on Tasmania’s smoking speakeasies a bad idea

  1. Ben N

    I am not sure I completely agree… cigarettes, by nature are something done regularly, and pretty difficult to hide, whereas most drug and alcohol use can be done ‘under the table’ so to speak, and tend to be done outside of work hours.

    I think the ban has a high likelihood if working to some degree, but criminalising it at a personal level will cause issues, just like it has with illicit drugs. The only people they should be chasing with the law, is the vendors.

    My issue is more the encroachment on personal liberty. When you are born should not dictate what freedoms you may enjoy.

  2. Wombat

    Big difference between alcohol and tobacco – moderate alcohol use has little or no impact on health. Nor is it addictive. Nor does using it correctly kill you.

    I’m in favour of the ban but against any criminal penalties for use or possession – these should be reserved only for those who sell it. Whilst this will drive supply underground to an extent, what is the moral difference between a publicly-listed company which cheats/lies/threatens to sell a product which kills, and a criminal enterprise which does the same?

  3. Two Bird Stone

    Ben, as someone who has known serious drug addicts in the past, let me assure you that “Difficult to hide” is all relative. One person that I knew would wake up in the morning, smoke a bong, got to work, come back during lunch, smoke a bong, go back to work, come home, end his day with a few bongs. Marijuana use is no easier or harder to hide than cigarette smoking, and prohibition will NOT change people’s addictions. I’m dead certain that there are plenty of kids born in 2000 who would smoke a few cigarettes just because it’s illegal – and all it would take is for them to get one of their mates born in 1999 to buy a pack for them. Once they’re addicted, the bikie gangs would have a field day.

    One other issue that hasn’t been raised in any of the media I’ve seen is regarding tourism. Australia’s tourism and hospitality industries are dependent on tourism from countries like China. And yes, while China’s overall smoking rate is around 25%, that’s because only 2.4% of women smoke, and a whopping 52.9% of Chinese Men smoke (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1102459). What will happen to tourism in Tasmania when blanket smoking bans are introduced? Simple: It would be decimated.

  4. Fool

    Prohibition has never worked! Our politicians are not placed in positions of power to make such decisions, citizens still need choice! No to nanny states! Whats the next step by the idiots in power, NO MORE DRINKING? NO MORE FATTY FOOD? ENFORCED EXERCISE? NO MORE DISSENT? NO MORE PROTESTS? NO MORE CRITICISM OF THE GOVERNMENT?
    I would really like to tell the government to take a hike from trying to control what people do in their lives!!!!!
    It appears that Western governments have been over stepping their bounds more and more recently. Not only are we subjected to more and more draconian laws, but we have had our rights and privacy stripped away. Rather than going forward it appears that we are returning to tyrannical feudal systems of control.

  5. Steve777

    I think this ban is well intentioned but wrong-headed. What we are doing now is working, slowly but surely, even if it may need a few more tweaks to overcome Big Tobacco’s ongoing attempts to circumvent restrictions on marketing their addictive poison. When I was young, nearly all grown-up men smoked, and while it was still regarded as slightly risque for a woman to smoke, more and more girls were taking it up. Now you just see a few pathetic souls huddling against the wind outside workplaces and entertainment venues who can’t wait to get home to tend to their addiction. Prohibition is unlikely to work and may have have the opposite effect of making smoking seem more desirable to many young people because of its illegality. Nearly all of today’s smokers were once rebellious teenagers who wanted to look ‘cool’ and grown up, disdainful of their elders’ warnings that smoking was a privelege reserved to adults and that it was very naughty for young people to smoke, with dire warnings that it will make you sick when you’re very old (most teenagers can’t imagine being 40). Eventually, smoking will be seen for what it is, a rather unattractive, unglamorous and expensive addiction practiced among a few consenting adults in private.

  6. simon.chapman

    Martyn, you need to read Wayne Hall’s seminal review of the claim that “prohibition didn’t stop people drinking” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.02926.x/pdf It didn’t, but it had large an important effects.
    We don’t judge any public health policy or initiative in such absolute terms. Seat belts don’t stop all people dying on the roads, condoms don’t prevent all disease & unwanted pregnancies.

  7. Charlie Maigne

    I think tobacco is the one drug for which prohibition might have a chance, especially starting with the low smoking rates we have today. The reason is that, while addictive, it doesn’t really rate as a recreational drug.

    I just can’t see people going through the lengths to score cigarettes that they saw during the Prohibition in the US and that we see now with illicit substances. Some hardcore addicts might fight the good fight, of course, but they’d be in the minority. The rest would just grit their teeth and bear it. Social smokers certainly wouldn’t bother – it’s not that good.

    And since (despite what the old “one cigarette and you’re hooked” campaign would’ve had us believe) nicotine addiction is built and maintained through frequent consumption of small doses, taking away the convenience would go a long way towards breaking the cycle of addiction.

    I don’t particularly like the current policy approach to illegal drugs, but I like even less the incongruity between that, and never being more than a brief walk away from being able to legally acquire a drug that kills millions of people a year. Surely the balance is a more than a bit off here.

  8. John Bennetts

    What has been proposed is not simply a “public health policy”. It is a prohibition of a product, use of which may cause personal illness for its consumers.

    Smoking is certainly a stupid and filthy habit, but the legislation goes far beyond outlawing stupidity. It will create a whole new class of criminal, complete with business plan pre-prepared.

    Once something has been banned, as so carefully stated in the lead article, it is beyond all other means of control. It cannot be regulated for pureness, additives and contaminants. It cannot be restricted to certain age groups or places. It cannot be taxed and thus cannot at least be asked to pay for some of its public costs, eg for health care. In other words, it goes feral.

    What Simon advocates will lead to immediate lack of control. He advocates stepping away from peer pressure and public disapproval, education campaigns and even intervention via counselling by family doctors. This last, because it would be a brave doctor indeed who would tell his patients that they are criminals. In the main, they just won’t do it. All of society’s complex web of constraints and gentle pressures will evaporate overnight.

    So here’s hoping that the Tassie Government will resist the temptation to break the trend towards ever lower usage via this type of legislation and will, instead, let the current excellent trends continue.

    Besides which, what’s wrong with a bit of self-assisted Darwinian selection? By comparison with Big Brother-style legislation such as that which is proposed, it’s obvious which one is more socially evil.

  9. Coaltopia

    If I want to be able to smoke the occasional cigar, I should be allowed to. Regardless of when I was born.

    If I want to chain-smoke, then I need to be taxed thoroughly enough to discourage it and help cover my future health bill.

  10. Steve777

    I don’t have a problem with adults smoking, as long as they don’t do it near me. Smoking doesn’t make people dangerous behind the wheel, it doesn’t impair their ability to work, nor does it make people aggressive or obnoxious, although smokers might get grumpy if they’re deprived. But smoking does affect nearby people, both short term (it stinks and gets in their hair and clothes) and long term (passive smoking). So my main problem with nicotine is its delivery system – cylinders or pipes emitting noxious, foul-smelling smoke. If people took nicotine in pills or made it into a tea and drank it, there’d be no worries. It would still be bad for the people who chose to use nicotine, but would not affect innocent bystanders. But smoking is like drinking beer from a garden sprinkler – it shouldn’t done in company.

  11. Harry Rogers

    Great! Where to next?

    Please attack alcohol and ban that if they are serious. While they are there lets ban homosexual contact for serious health reasons. Might as well heterosexual for the same reasons.

    Lets get right into peoples homes and monitor their water use and limit that for the benefit of us all.

    Also Let put cameras and microphones in people house to monitor their “think speak” to ensure it doesnt go against the accepted norms lest they speak some truths.

    Australia..or is it California ?Great place to live amongst so many blind people.

  12. Bryannai Baillieu

    As an ex-smoker I can’t see prohibition working either. It will give smoking a risque appeal it doesn’t really have at this point in time. And given that it is highly addictive it will inevitably create a criminal class. That or younger people who get addicted will start doing what a lot of homeless people in Melbourne already do – scrape around public bins for butts.

  13. Garmonbozia

    Putting the libertarian issue to one side for a moment, surely making parallels with prohibition is stretching it: nicotine is unpopular with much of the population, and it’s difficult to imagine any violent criminal empires springing up in response to it being banned. Addictive though it certainly is, it doesn’t have the same euphoric effects that drive an attachment to alcohol, and many smokers seem split between their addiction and a genuine desire to quit “one day.” I don’t know many drinkers (and I’m teetotal myself) who talk about alcohol as something they’re going to give up, eventually, maybe when another kid comes along, etc.

    It seems more likely to me that banned nicotine would have similar status and underground distribution to any other illegal recreational drug.

  14. Andybob

    The libertarian objection is stronger now that government policies preventing advertising and attractive packaging are working. People are voting with their brains by not risking their health for a mildly nauseous rush. Peer group pressure and the “cool” factor are dissipating. I don’t think we should stop using a strategy that is working, looking at the take up numbers, for one that has failed. The libertarian argument is much less strong for poker machines, where addiction in the form of operant conditioning is researched and encouraged. Why shouldn’t poker machine manufacturers, owners and operators be responsible for the entirely predictable mental health issues resulting from their deployment and use ?

  15. Fool

    Public health officials (Nicola Roxon & co.)
    Willing to take away individual rights, such as smoking, but unwilling to stop filthy polluting transport, which indiscriminately harms everyone!
    Put you policy in line with what you preach Nicola – ban fossil fuels.
    Once you have fixed social ill that effect all Australian citizens, then you can ask people if they would like to have their liberties and personal choice removed!
    At the moment I have no choice if I want to breathe carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphides, nitrides, noxious and poisonous emission and particle pollution!
    Roxon putting the cart before the horse – again and again!
    Funny how the cancer council wants to ban smoking, but refuses to acknowledge the effects of vehicle and factory emissions!

  16. Fool

    Australian governments: – happy to let big business, banks and the media regulate themselves; but unwilling to let its citizens regulate their lifestyles!

  17. BruceHassan

    My grandfather died on emphysema. He was a heavy smoker. He was only 59. I don’t believe that his life would have been any better if he had been made into a criminal because of his addiction.
    Regulation, taxation, education – they actually work to reduce smoking and reduce smoking-related illness. Criminality doesn’t, and it won’t. Prohibition of tobacco will be just as expensive and counter-productive as the prohibition of other drugs. Why are we planning to create a whole new group of criminals because of their drug addiction? Please don’t do it.

  18. Patriot

    Greens drug policy – prohibition on tobacco, free needles and injecting rooms for junkies. Loony.

  19. seriously?

    Prohibition won’t work, or more importantly, the cost of achieving (measured in $ and social ter) prohibition will outweigh the social benefits. Keep the campaigns to make it more and more expensive and undesireable by all means, but if the last 5% want to keep smoking then so be it. The taxes raised will cover the medical costs.

  20. Steve777

    Two comments on the libertarian argument:

    1. Adults don’t take up smoking, children do. Have you ever heard of a 25 or 40 year old taking up smoking? We need to prevent corporations marketing addictive poison to minors.

    2. Smoking is offensive and potentially harmful to those nearby – outdoors to those within about 5 metres and indoors to those in the same room. So smoking should only be done in company with the free consent of others present. Between consenting adults, smoking is OK, and none of the measures adopted in Australia so far limits this.

    This Tasmanian proposal is, however, a step too far. I agree Andybob (8:03pm).

  21. Edward James

    let me tell you. we the people are close to getting lucky nationally. so how is it givern that most playwer lost called

  22. Edward James

    I am noticing how Australians first peoples are beginning tounderstand thy tenfirst peoples have much more control that government is wiling to giv e the peopes.

    be confident whatha penpens os not enough part of meee dose npt get a stuf

  23. Fool

    So if we are to ban smoking and the sale of cigarettes under the premise that it improves health outcomes. We should also decriminalise certain drugs along the same premise, as it has been proven to improve health outcomes.

  24. Bryannai Baillieu

    @STEVE777 – I bought my first pack of cigarettes and started smoking at 20 years old. People get addicted to nicotine at all ages – just like any other drug.

  25. Steve777

    BRYANNAI – I agree that not all smokers start before 18, but my personal experience is that if people don’t start at school or in the year or so after they leave, they never do. John Howard is another exception, starting when he was 21 and giving it away some time later. But then he was probably a bit of a goody two shoes as a young man. Studies in developed countries have found that more than 80% of smokers became addicted as teenagers, with the average age of starting smoking being about 16.

    For example, see w w w.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-1-prevalence/1-6-prevalence-of-smoking-secondary-students

  26. secondsoprano

    Hmmm…. why is it that whenever I read “independent health policy analyst” I think “tobacco industry stooge”?

    I wonder what kind of research Mr Goddard does, and who pays for it?

  27. Edward James

    I must make an effort to hide the demon grog!


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