WASHINGTON – Christian Stauffer took a long drag on his Marlboro Red during a break outside his workplace a few blocks from the White House,but Americans' changing attitudes about smokers might force him to kick the habit some day.
In the wake of a recent onslaught of smoking ban legislation,the Drug Policy Alliance unveiled a Zogby International poll Thursday that showed 45 percent of the American public would support making cigarettes illegal in five to10 years.
Zogby,a nonpartisan polling firm,surveyed 1,200 people in July. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
“Prohibition doesn't work,” said Stauffer,30,a Web developer for Federal Reports Inc. “It didn't work with the drug war,and it didn't work with alcohol.”
The DPA,which works to advance alternative policies to the war on drugs,doesn't think a nationwide ban would work,either. The group commissioned the survey to “sound the alarm,” said Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann.
“We're on a really slippery slope right now,” Nadelmann said during a telephone news conference. “Better to start the debate now than to wait until criminal prohibition begins to seem inevitable.”
Even Americans for Non-smokers' Rights,a lobbying group that works to regulate where smokers can smoke,does not support a prohibition.
“We're not advocating for cigarettes to be made illegal,” said Anne Tegen,ANR senior program manager. “That opens up a whole new can of issues.”
Norm Stamper,former Seattle police chief and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,pointed to the country's failed alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933 as an example of what could happen if cigarettes were made illegal.
“The creation of a criminal underclass,which gave rise to unprecedented levels of violence throughout our country,especially in large cities,” Stamper said. “We at LEAP are convinced that prohibiting cigarettes would actually lead to an increase in death,disease,crime and addictions,as it has with other drugs.”
Nadelmann said he was concerned a cigarette ban would resemble past attempts at prohibition by targeting specific groups of people.
“When the use of a particular drug is done by people across society from the wealthy to the poor,nobody talks about criminal prohibition,” he said. “But when numbers of consumers diminish and the numbers become disproportionately people who are young,people who are poor and people of color,that's when criminal prohibition begins to become acceptable.”
Nadelmann said this was the case with opium,restricted in 1875 after Chinese immigrants in California began smoking it in opium dens; cocaine,restricted in 1914 after black people began using the drug; and marijuana,restricted in 1937 after Mexican immigrants began using the drug.
The public's view of cigarette smoking changed dramatically after Richard Carmona,whose term as U.S. surgeon general ended in July,revealed research showing the negative effects of second-hand smoke.
Carmona strongly supported a ban on cigarettes,but his successor,Kenneth Moritsugu,has instead focused on educating people about tobacco's risks,discouraging smoking and helping smokers quit,said spokeswoman,Rebecca Ayer.
“Determinations about the most appropriate legislative approaches for the regulation of tobacco products should be made by Congress,” Moritsugu said in a statement.
Tegen said 17 states have “strong” statewide smoking bans that apply to all or nearly all public workplaces and restaurants.
The number is on the rise. Hawaii's statewide ban will take effect in November,and bans in Louisiana,New Jersey,Utah and Puerto Rico will take effect next year. Voters will consider smoking bans in Nevada,Arizona and Ohio on Nov. 7.
More than 2,000 laws nationwide govern smoking to some extent in cities,and ANR considers 519 of those to be “strong” laws,Tegen said.
Philip Morris USA,the largest U.S. tobacco producer,which is operated by Altria Inc.,decided not to lobby against smoking ban legislation this year,said spokesman Michael Neese.
Neese declined to comment on the Zogby poll,but said Philip Morris was the only major tobacco company to strongly support regulation of tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration,a move proposed in bipartisan legislation introduced to both houses of Congress in March 2005.
“FDA authority and regulation over cigarettes would help reduce the harm associated with smoking,while allowing legitimate participants in the tobacco industry a more predictable and stable business environment to operate in,” Neese said.
Stamper said he believes measures less extreme than prohibition have already successfully reduced smoking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health Interview Survey found the number of adult smokers in the U.S. declined from 24.7 percent in 1997 to 20.9 percent in 2005. It rose slightly this year to 21.5 percent.
“A solid public education program,taxation and regulation of that product has reduced smoking dramatically without a single person going to jail or even getting a citation for it,” Stamper said.
To see all the results of the Zogby International poll,click here.