The Bizarre Morality of Capitalism: Should tobacco be criminalized?

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The Bizarre Morality of Capitalism: Should tobacco be criminalized?

The Dollar Wisdom of Death

If you loaded 1 Airbus A380-900 plane with 960 individuals and crashed this plane into the earth every day for one year, you would still be short approximately 129,600 people who die from cigarette smoking annually. An article published in the National Library of Medicine candidly states, "More deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and all murders combined." The inescapable fact of smoking is that it kills 480,000 people every year, which is one in every five deaths in the United States. The obvious question arising from this circumstance asks, why tobacco is legal to sell when other illegal, less deadly substances are outlawed? The answer, couched with freedom of choice and individual rights arguments, becomes less of a cultural issue and more of a realization that capitalism makes ethics secondary to the pursuit of money.

Drug Scheduling & Tobacco

Tobacco is not merely an individual choice, but instead a public health issue that concerns users and nonusers alike. As a public health issue, tobacco use should be regulated more like problems such as illicit drug use. In fact, going by the governments established standards concerning drug categories, there is no reason why tobacco is legal. Dangerous drugs are categorized as Schedule I. This schedule of drug, which is considered the most dangerous of drugs, e.g. cocaine, heroin, crack, etc… is characterized by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The criteria for being classified as a Schedule I drug are defined by the DEA Drug Scheduling:

Schedule I

Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote.

An examination of this scheduling policy reveals tobacco absolutely fits the criteria of a Schedule I drug.

Nicotine Has No Accepted Medical Use

As early as the 1600s, the medical use of tobacco was questioned by physicians since it was indiscriminately used as an herbal cure for any number of diseases. From that time, many doctors were aware of the possible dangers of tobacco and by the 1950s, studies of tobacco revealed it was ineffective as a medical treatment. The Surgeon General, in 1988, presented reports claiming nicotine had no medicinal use and that it was "every bit addicting as heroin". This opinion has not changed, evidenced by the CDC consistently reaffirming nicotine's high potential for abuse, and even more harmful for the developing adolescent brain.

Despite every major health organization in the United States and the Surgeon General claiming nicotine is a drug, the FDA has not scheduled it as a drug. Under the Tobacco Control Act, the FDA regulates the packaging, selling, and manufacturing of all nicotine products, including warning labels and programs aimed at discouraging tobacco and nicotine use as it would any medicinal drug, but does not classify nicotine as a drug. As a result of this classification, it is still legal to buy and sell over the counter with age and marketing restrictions.

Nicotine Dependence

The second criterion of the Schedule I drug is that of addictive quality. Nicotine is considered every bit as addictive as heroin and cocaine.

Studies of nicotine show that it has the same impact on pleasure centers of the brain that other illicit and addictive drugs have as well as causing compulsive drug seeking and use. Perhaps the most revealing point of nicotine being an addictive substance is the fact that people will experience withdrawal which is a phenomena that only occurs in addictive substances.

Finally, the third criterion for the Schedule I drug is that of its danger to public health. The facts show nicotine is perhaps the most lethal of all drugs. Here’s the facts:

1. In the United States, tobacco is the leading preventable cause of preventable disease, disability, and disease.

2. The CDC reports that the death rates resulting from cigarette smoking are estimated at 480,000 annually.

3. One fifth of all deaths in the United States are the direct or indirect result of tobacco.

The dangers that nicotine presents are clear and obvious, begging the question as to why nicotine is not listed as a Schedule I drug? The answer is not easy to find, but it does exist. In fact, the DEA's Drugs of Abuse: ADEA Resource Guide 2020 Edition states:

There are… a number of substances that are abused but not regulated under the …[Controlled Substance Act]. Alcohol and tobacco…are specifically exempt from control by the CSA. In addition, a whole group of substances called inhalants are commonly available and widely abused by children. Control of these substances under the CSA would not only impede legitimate commerce, but also would likely have little effect on the abuse of these substances by youngsters.

The government, specifically the DEA, states that the reason for nicotine not being considered a dangerous drug is due to financial reasons and the belief that prohibiting them would be ineffective. This reasoning is flawed in many aspects clearly seen in the fact that regulating the nicotine as a dangerous product greatly diminished its use and dependence. In the last 30 years, the rates of tobacco users dropped significantly. For example, the percentage of smoker decreased from 14.0% in 2019 to 12.5% in 2020. Another source states that the rate of tobacco users dropped from 42.6% in 1965 to 13.7% in 2018. The argument that legal action and policy is ineffective fails.

The Cost of Tobacco Prohibition

Another flaw in this reasoning is the idea that criminalizing nicotine would impede commerce. This logic assumes the United States financially benefits from nicotine use. This logic does not pan out when one examines the facts. Here are the financial facts concerning tobacco.

In 2022, the United States collected $11.26 billion in tobacco tax revenues. However, the cost of cigarette smoking on the nation’s economy was far greater. Back in 2018, the economic burden of smoking exceeded $600 billion, with healthcare spending alone accounting for over $240 billion. Although the precise figures for 2022 remain elusive, it’s clear that the financial toll of adult cigarette smoking on U.S. healthcare is substantial. In fact, more than half of the healthcare costs attributable to smoking, amounting to $125.7 billion, are shouldered by Medicare or Medicaid.

The cost of nicotine is not just a national problem; the average annual revenue generated by individual states between 1998 to 2010 increased from $1.44 per pack from $0.39, resulting in a doubling of annual state excise tax revenues from $7.4 billion to $16.5 billion. However, during the same time period, the average annual cost in the United States was $96 billion. This cost included direct medical care, lost productivity, and exposure to secondhand smoke. This means that every state in the union lost millions of dollars due to tobacco consumption and use.

Clearly, nicotine is so deadly, it proves financially detrimental since its healthcare costs far exceed its revenue in the United States. It would make more financial sense to prohibit the substance in order to discourage use. The far reaching impacts of prohibiting tobacco would include reduced healthcare costs, increased productivity, and more money for important social programs such as job building and economic development. Criminalizing tobacco, for these reasons, is the prudent and responsible choice, but this does not occur.

The Capitalist Morality

Nicotine is an inexpensive product that produces long term revenue from users, providing you reach those users by a certain age. The younger the tobacco user the higher the probability that user will continue using the product for the rest of their life. Nine out of 10 adults who smoke cigarettes daily first try smoking by age 18, and 99% first try smoking by age 26. Each day in the U.S., about 1,600 youth smoke their first cigarette and nearly 200 youth start smoking every day.

Despite the grotesque nature of a product that serves only to kill its user through addiction, tobacco has not only continued to be sold but allowed to expand into markets such as "vapes with kid friendly flavors."

Understandably, because tobacco has a such tremendous foothold in the public (millions of people) criminalizing it would serve to create massive issues for law enforcement. However, there are firmer measures that could be taken, such as increasing cost more and even making the industry fully government controlled. Perhaps complete regulation in which existing smokers can receive prescriptions for nicotine to avert blackmarket activity. The point is that more action can be taken.

Why should any company be allowed to profit from a product that kills as its only long term effect?

It should not, but in a capitalist society morality always bends with the dollar sign, evidenced by the fact that despite society paying the cost of nicotine addiction, companies are still allowed to market and profit from this death.

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