Public Health Aside, It's Always Fun To Stamp Out Other People's Vices

This is bad news for Big Tobacco, but it may alarm others as well: In a Zogby Poll commissioned by an outfit called the Drug Policy Alliance, 45 percent of adults said they’d favor a federal ban on cigarettes within the next five to 10 years. This would, of course, be the biggest criminalization of a widely used product since Prohibition.

If second-hand smoke were a growing problem, one would be less surprised by the findings. In fact, though, the reverse is true. A few days after the Zogby data was released, a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that exposure to second-hand smoke “has decreased dramatically” during the past 20 years. It wasn’t long ago, after all, that smokers could puff away in offices, sports arenas, theater lobbies—even in confined spaces like airplanes. Now, more jurisdictions each year chase smokers out of bars, to say nothing of restaurants. Moreover, there are fewer smokers than there were 20 years ago. Although the decline in incidence of adult smoking has stalled, the CDC put the percentage of people who were “current smokers” in 2005 (the most recent year for which it has data) at less than half what it was 40 years earlier: 20.9 percent vs. 42.4 percent. Even among people who do smoke, recent Gallup polling found a sharp decline in the average number of cigarettes they smoke per day. In short, there hasn’t been a time within living memory when smokers impinged less on non-smokers.

How, then, are we to account for the massive number of Americans who’d ban cigarettes? One suspects it’s partly because smokers seem easier to push around now, and not just because they’re less numerous. The decline in smoking during the past several decades has shifted the demographics of tobacco, making smokers a more downscale group. We can surmise that this makes non-smokers feel entitled to deal firmly with what they view as a nasty lower-class habit. (A similar development appears to be afoot with respect to fast food and junk food, with proposals now abounding for restrictions and taxes.)

You might suspect that the aging of the U.S. population has increased the proportion of people eager to crack down on a disproportionately youthful vice, but that’s not what’s going on here. The strongest rate of support for banning cigarettes came from the youngest respondents to the Zogby survey: Among those in the 18-29 age bracket, 57 percent backed such a drastic step. Having grown up in more of a nanny state than their elders did, the young folks are apparently less uncomfortable with such an expansive exercise of governmental power.