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Banning Tobacco: No War for a Smoke-Free America

News & Features | December 8, 2014

A local health board’s proposal to ban the sale of all tobacco products made Westminster—a small town in central Massachusetts—a surprisingly fierce battleground in the war against smoking. A raucous public hearing, during which locals voiced concerns that the health board’s proposal would interfere excessively with civilian rights, resulted in the termination of the proposal and a “victory party” at the town’s Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The commotion, however, wasn’t all celebratory. Andrea Crete, a local board of health chairwoman, had to be escorted out of the hearing by police officers. According to Police Chief Sam Albert, members of the health board allegedly received anonymous harassment and threats because of their original support of the proposal.

At a subsequent meeting, Crete cast the only vote in favor of the proposal, telling the Boston Globe, “I’m disappointed because we were trying to do something good.” Crete added that the reactions to the proposal were a result of a failed effort to educate residents about the implications of the proposal. “We didn’t want to stop people from smoking in private, but unfortunately that’s the way it came off.” In the wake of Westminster’s unruly response to the health board, we are left wondering how a seemingly innocuous proposal to ban the sale of tobacco and nicotine products escalated into a fight for civilian rights.

For David Sutton, a public affairs spokesman for Philip Morris—Altria’s tobacco conglomerate—the board’s proposal was “a bad policy that will harm local employers.” Sutton, who represents a company that owns both Marlboro and Parliament brands, said, “If the ban were to be implemented, adult tobacco and e-vapor consumers could shift their purchases to neighboring stores. The proposed regulations, if enacted, would fundamentally alter these businesses and would likely cost Westminster jobs.” Sutton’s comments echo the same concerns of Westminster residents, who reason that the success of local businesses is contingent upon tobacco sales.

However, the logic that a tobacco ban would fundamentally alter local businesses is an exaggeration. Brian Vincent, the owner of a country store in Westminster and an outspoken opponent of the proposal, told Newsweek that tobacco accounts for only about 5% of his sales—certainly not enough to shut down Vincent’s store nor fundamentally alter his business.

Nevertheless, the discourse in Westminster remained centered around a potential threat to local businesses while silencing any conversation about the public health benefits of banning tobacco products. While the Westminster proposal to ban sales of tobacco is the first of its kind, we have seen this discourse before in the history of tobacco politics.

In January 1964, the Surgeon General’s panel released a conclusive study that smoking caused lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer of the larynx. A legal battle between the Federal Trade Commission and six of the most powerful cigarette companies eventually escalated into a Senate hearing to decide whether all tobacco products and advertisements would be required to display the Surgeon General’s warning. By 1969, the companies were required to display the warning on their products in “conspicuous and legible type.” Reflecting back on the legal defense of these six cigarette companies, we observe the same logic defended by the townspeople of Westminster. This argument begins with the “excess” principle—the notion that excessive smoking is no worse than excessive drinking or unhealthy eating. Therefore, the same logic that supports a ban on tobacco would also support a ban on alcohol and McDonald’s. Restricting tobacco because it is unhealthy if consumed in excess would threaten other American industries whose products are also hazardous in excess. However, cigarette companies either ignored or obscured the fact that the Surgeon General’s panel concluded that, unlike drinking alcohol or eating McDonald’s, no safe level of smoking could be determined.

Nevertheless, the insular argument that government regulation threatens American businesses has imbued itself in the discourse of tobacco politics and has emerged yet again at the Westminster battleground; restrictions to tobacco were resisted because of the damage they are perceived to cause to other industries and even private citizens. At the Westminster town meeting, residents held signs asking, “What’s Next?” and “Where Does It Stop?”—echoing the same arguments that allowed tobacco companies to suspend displaying the Surgeon General’s warning on their products in 1964. Residents of Westminster reacted to what the ban on tobacco sales represented excess government interference in the affairs of businesses and private citizens.

There are, however, consequences to our tendency to perceive government restrictions on the industry as the beginning of an avalanche of excess government discretion. In the Westminster public hearing, Crete could hardly discuss the board’s reasoning for the proposal. Public health research, including the fact that 5.6 million American children currently younger than 18 will die prematurely because of smoking, were drowned under the conversation about government discretion. Ultimately, the arguments that shape the discourse around tobacco politics completely silence and even vilify proponents of public health like Andrea Crete; it renders Westminster an argumentative battleground between public health officials and residents who fear encroachments upon their individual freedoms.

The events in Westminster extend beyond this discourse of tobacco politics and speak to a larger human phenomenon—the freedom to decide how we as individuals alleviate stress. In 1970, Philip Morris’ top management released a memo saying, “We are in the business of relaxing people who are tense and providing a pick up for people who are bored or depressed. The human needs that our product fills will not go away. Thus, the only real threat to our business is that society will find other means of satisfying these needs.” Many adults and children turn to nicotine, knowing that it is a hazardous and addictive drug. Nevertheless, we still choose to smoke and expect that our government will protect our freedom to choose what we ingest. The only expectation is that they will help educate potential consumers in their decision. Tobacco companies have profited most in foreign markets, like Indonesia, where government regulation is completely absent and children and adults remain uninformed of the hazards of smoking; the lack of regulation abroad reminds us that efforts to educate consumers about the risk of smoking, regulate its sale, and tax it accordingly are critical responsibilities of our government.

However, due to the fact that many Americans understand smoking as a private choice—despite its inarguable death toll—government proposals to ban the sale of tobacco and nicotine products will always escalate into a critique of governmental overstepping. The discourse will vilify public health officials who understandably base policies on the proven hazards of smoking. Members of government dedicated to this cause are extending beyond the concerns of public health when they attempt to abolish tobacco and nicotine sales. From the perspective of Americans who accept smoking as a private choice, officials like Andrea Crete overstep their duties and rights as public officials. The events in Westminster only serve to remind us that Americans view small attempts to abolish tobacco and nicotine as a violation of fundamental rights. Therefore, public health officials dedicated to these policies will be fighting an uphill battle.