More specifically, give a one-year warning and then ban the sale of cigarettes; after a further three months, impose moderate financial penalties for smoking in public. Offer free quit-smoking products, such as gum (a very good use of government money in the long term). Advertise about the dangers of second-hand smoke, particularly for children exposed to it in their homes. Target teens with ads explaining that smoking makes them look unhip. Stringently regulate the growing of tobacco within the US.
Likely consequences: a black market will develop for cigarettes, of course, but overall the number of people in the US who smoke will sharply decrease. If the program is successful at preventing children from beginning smoking, the practice could die out within a generation. There's simply too much money involved for the tobacco companies to allow that passively to occur, so I predict they will suddenly invest a significant amount of time and money into developing a safer delivery vehicle for nicotine. Whether that means an entirely new product (along the lines of gum) or safer cigarettes (as regulated by the FDA) I don't know, but I have a lot of faith in their cleverness, I'm sure that when properly motivated they'll come up with something.
Why do this? Didn't we learn with prohibition that criminalizing petty vices is extremely counter-productive? The key difference here is that using alcohol in moderation is not inevitably harmful (wine may actually be mildly beneficial ). Smoking in moderation is potentially lethal . I think it's simply ridiculous that we as a society tolerate a product that when used as intended slowly kills people at enormous financial and emotional cost to the rest of us.
The cost/benefit to smoking is not particularly hard to figure out. Benefit: once you're addicted, it feels good. Cost: you'll probably die a nasty death. Hmm. The reason people don't quit is obvious, of course: nicotine is alarmingly addictive. Ask anyone who has smoked for more than five years how many times they've tried to quit, and I betcha the answer isn't gonna be zero. Unfortunately, the preferred delivery system for this drug is inevitably and cumulatively harmful. Banning smoking has nothing to do with morals; I could care less if the smokers chew nicotine gum all day (although that's kind of creepy too, but whatever). It's just common sense to avoid an entirely predictable tragedy.
Which makes it hard to understand why politicians wouldn't support such an obvious method of saving money and saving lives. Gosh, you think money had anything to do with it?
According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), in the previous election cycle, the tobacco companies gave more than $6 million in soft money, mainly to the Republican Party. Between 1995 and the end of 2002, Philip Morris alone put up more than $10.7 million (about $9 million to Republicans), making it number four on the all-time soft-money donor list.
When you throw in the jobs involved with growing and processing tobacco, it's not hard to see why politicians ignore the elephant in the room. Maybe change will have to come from the local level, where many businesses now prohibit smoking indoors. It can also come from the personal level: if you smoke, try to quit.