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“No, you can’t do that. It’s bad for you.”

             I'm as vicious a critic of cigarettes as there is - my father, who smoked four packs of Camels a day, befouled our small Brooklyn apartment (as well as his lungs and heart) and died of a massive heart attack two months before my college graduation, at the age of 48. But I think that the current mania for seeking to ban the nasty habit without actually outlawing the product has finally gone too far. The recent Boston Globe report by Stephen Smith illustrates the point. 

            Smoking opponents, fresh from their completely appropriate and salutary victory in banning smoking in office buildings and, more recently, in restaurants and even bars, are now on the verge of significantly extending the ban. The new restrictions, given an initial nod of approval by city health regulators at a hearing held yesterday, include bans on cigarette sales at Boston drugstores and college campuses. In addition, regulations would, remarkably, extend the ban to the outdoor patios of restaurants where food is served.

            It's perfectly understandable that the government would ban smoking in enclosed spaces where second-hand smoke could easily affect the health and comfort of non-smokers. And it's likewise reasonable to ban the sale of cigarettes on university campuses where some of the residents are underage. But what can be the possible justification for banning smoking on the outdoor patios of restaurants? And is it really reasonable to prevent drugstores from selling tobacco products, merely because, as Barbara Ferrer, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission told the Globe: "Why, in a place where people go to get healthy and get information about staying healthy, would you want to sell something that has absolutely no redeeming value and ends up killing a lot of people?" (It does not take a huge leap of logic to see the future movement to ban the sale of soda pop, candy, and anything else without "redeeming value.")

            There's an answer to Ms. Ferrer's question, and it goes to the heart of our nation's founding: Liberty. The oft-forgotten (and less rosy) corollary to our celebrated self-determination is the liberty to do harm to oneself, as long as harm isn't inflicted upon others. If we continue to make it harder for people to smoke, we will get to the point where reasonable regulations, meant to protect non-smokers, will become a virtual prohibition against sale and use of a lawful product. If we continue to tighten the screws, and if we take the further (and inevitable?) step of actually outlawing cigarettes altogether, we will produce yet another disaster akin to the catastrophic "war on drugs" that has produced a series of monstrous legal and social problems, including the exorbitant costs, the massive violations of civil liberties, the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and the corruption of many police and enforcement agencies in this country and around the world. (Has anyone noticed that the cultivation of the opium poppy in Afghanistan - sold in the form of heroin largely to the illicit American market - is a major source of funding for terrorist groups?)

            There is yet another aspect of this debate that has received little attention. When these types of products are removed from the shelves of pharmacies and grocery stores, they will inevitably end up stuffed in corners of freight ships and delivery trucks - part of the black market. Rather than decrease the demand, restrictions are much more likely to distort the supply. Take, for example, the massive underground operation that has arisen in England after the government pushed cigarette taxes through the roof. The official rationale was to make the harmful product less available to the public. But it is now widely known that most London club bouncers double as bootleg tobacco providers. In just one instance in 2007, customs officials seized over 50 million illicit cigarettes and over four tons of hand rolling tobacco. Because of the nature of the black market, it is impossible to gauge the overall effect, though some groups estimate the annual revenue loss to be $50 billion worldwide. And it's not just lost money - where there is no industry or government oversight, anything can be put into an already harmful product. In addition to increased chemical levels, the counterfeit products, often made in Chinese forced labor camps, have been found to contain "sawdust, tobacco beetles and even rat droppings," according to a BBC report. So think twice when considering the benefits versus the detriments of placing cigarettes next to health information and Nicorette patches at your neighborhood pharmacy.

            The Boston Public Health Commission spent less than an hour before giving the initial nod of approval for extending the ban. The discussion will soon enter a 60-day public comment phase before taking effect. Let us prove, once again, we have more intelligence, more perspective, and more faith in reason than those who represent us. Tell our city officials that there are better ways to combat smoking - ways that don't require the government to tell us what to do.

            Persuasion, for instance, has proven an effective tool in reducing the smoking rate in this country from over half the adult population to well under a third. Additional progress surely can be made until the only smokers left are the hard-core addicts who will do anything and go anywhere to obtain the stuff. But to resort to increasingly Draconian bans risks not only a backlash, but also the destruction of civil liberties that, in a free society, must count for something.

                                                                                           

                                                                                      By Harvey Silverglate & Kyle Smeallie

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