As we’ve seen in the war on drugs, the best way to stop people taking things that are bad for them is definitely to make that thing illegal. After all, no one smokes marijuana any more. And you just can’t get cocaine or MDMA or heroin for love nor money these days. And certainly an entire industry based around creating murkily legal equivalents of all those things to get around the law hasn’t sprung up. That’s right – there’s nothing like banning a drug to make people immediately stop taking it!
Except in the sense, of course, that that’s not true at all.
Which makes it even more baffling that the British Medical Association is going to vote tomorrow on whether or not tobacco should be made permanently illegal for all people born after 2000. Not merely that they should be unable to buy it until they turn 18, but that if you are 13 or younger now, you will never be able to buy cigarettes in your life. Obviously the BMA can’t make these laws itself, but it is a powerful voice on health policy, so this matters.
Obviously we can all agree that smoking is fantastically bad for you. About once a month I see a headline which says that some unhealthy thing is as bad as smoking – “processed meat is as bad for you as smoking!” “lack of sleep is as bad for you as smoking!” – and before I’ve even read the piece I think, bet you it’s not, because smoking’s really really bad for you, and the evidence for that is really really good. I’m hugely in favour of things that will help reduce the level of smoking in the population. The smoking ban has helped; advertising bans have probably helped; plain packs may or may not, although I’m pretty sure they will because the industry is so fanatically against them.
But prohibition is simply a terrible idea. It was a terrible idea in the USA in the Thirties, because it drove tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding people to crime, and pushed an entire industry into the hands of gangsters. It’s a bad idea now, in the case of drugs, for exactly the same reasons (and the move to make khat illegal, criminalising huge swaths of the Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities in Britain, is a particularly short-sighted and idiotic move). And, as I’ve written roughly six hundred and forty-eight thousand times in the past, the evidence that prohibition significantly reduces levels of use of the thing you’re banning is extremely weak; meanwhile, prohibition drives the social harm caused by that thing way, way up (people in jail, increased criminality, gang warfare &c).
We could have a philosophical argument for a million years about the rights of the individual, should a person be free to damage their own body in the way that they choose, and so on. I’d probably come down somewhere in the middle of that debate, in between the wild-eyed libertarians saying six-year-olds should be free to inject ketamine directly into their occipital lobes, and the fusty old colonels who think that coffee should be illegal because those foreigns import it. But we don’t need to have that debate. Even staying in the evidence-based, public health, societal harms stuff, it is pretty obvious from all the other things we’ve tried to ban over the last hundred years or so that prohibition is not the right way of reducing the harm of any given drug. If you want to reduce the harms they cause, keep them legal, but regulated, and with restrictions on sales and advertising.
Once I was arguing with someone in the comments underneath a piece I wrote about plain packaging for cigarettes, probably this one, and I said that no one credible was arguing for an actual ban on cigarettes. It turns out I was wrong. There are actual people, it seems, who think that the war on drugs is going so brilliantly that they want to expand its targets to include humanity’s second-favourite narcotic. The global tobacco industry made $35 billion in profits in 2011. Does pushing that sort of money into the hands of Pablo Escobar’s spiritual descendants sound like a good idea?