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The eighteenth amendment to the United States constitution came into force on 29 January 1920. The manufacture, sale, transportation import or export of intoxicating liquors was prohibited. Thus began the greatest social experiment, perhaps, in human history.


As the world now knows, the experiment failed. A shade under fourteen years later, on 5 December 1933, came the twenty-first amendment, ending prohibition and regulating alcohol rather than banning it. Prohibition did not stop people drinking. Mostly, it changed the suppliers rather than the consumers. While the population went on drinking, those importing, making and selling the stuff ceased to be the owners of licensed, regulated businesses. Their role was immediately taken by organised criminals selling bootleg liquor, often of poor and dangerous quality. The Mafia, Al Capone – and the FBI, which got massively increased funding and powers – did very well. The nation did badly.


In just fourteen years that disastrous experiment, with the people of a nation as the guinea-pigs, landed America with an organised crime problem with which they are still dealing. When prohibition ended the mob changed its focus from alcohol to sex and drugs, and from speakeasies to casinos.


But the lesson was not learnt. Prohibition was extended to a vast range of other drugs – opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis. The result was much the same: a boom in organised crime and in law-enforcement, poor quality drugs on the market being sold outside of any regulation of quality, customers self-administering drugs of unknown strength and adulteration in conditions which invited disaster. Fatal overdoses followed in massive numbers. The high cost of illegal drugs led customers to inject, getting more bang for their buck but risking overdose, AIDS and hepatitis C.


As drug prohibition spread around the world, crime followed. Criminal gangs took over whole countries. As insurgencies in Africa, Asia and South America looked around for a source of funding, their armies moved into the drugs trade. Drug crime fuelled civil wars and millions died.


But in the 1960s and 1970s, when the link between tobacco and lung cancer became undeniable, the lesson – for once – was learnt. No country in the world has banned tobacco; the focus has been instead on regulation, education and control. Australia – and, recently, Tasmania – have a good record. Fifty years ago, smoking among adults was almost ubiquitous: the rate has since plummeted. According to the most recent survey, taken in 2011 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 15.1% of Australians aged 14 and over were smoking every day. In Tasmania, the rate has gone from 24.4% in 1998 to 15.9% in 2011, with a dramatic drop between 2007 and 2011 as price increases, smoking bans in restaurants, bars and cars with kids took hold and swung public attitudes more strongly against smoking. The debate over plain packaging may prove to be as beneficial in changing community attitudes as the measure itself.


Control over smoking is working. Most young people do not begin: this is revealed in the statistics on the numbers of people who have never smoked. Nationally, an extraordinary 57.8% (52.8% in Tasmania) have never used tobacco; another 24.1% (28.7% in Tasmania) have managed to kick the habit. Prohibition would destroy this extraordinarily successful strategy by placing tobacco use outside of the range of regulation and control, and into the far more dangerous limbo of underground criminal supply.


Australia compares well with other nations, though almost everywhere – including in China and India – smoking is on the way out. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Australia is substantially better than the OECD average both in the level of daily smoking and the rate at which people are giving up – or, in the case of the young, not starting.


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Those supporting the proposal to ban tobacco supply to everyone born after 2000 deny that it amounts to prohibition. But it does. It replaces the successful means of tobacco control we now have – education and regulation – with what will in time become a blanket ban. People who are now twelve years old will never be able (legally) to smoke as adults; those who are now thirteen will be able to.


As time passes more and more people will become subject to the ban. Eventually it will become total. But nicotine is perhaps the most addictive of all recreational drugs. Anyone starting to smoke, at any time in their lives, has a significant chance of becoming addicted. There is already an illegal, criminal supply of tobacco, driven by increases in the excise paid on commercially available cigarettes. The history of drug prohibition shows that people who want a drug are likely to get it anyway, legally or illegally – particularly if they become addicted.


The patterns of cannabis use show how powerfully attractive a drug – even a relatively non-addictive one – can become, particularly to the young, if the allure of mild outlawry is bestowed upon it. Naughty is nice, even when it isn’t really nice at all.


It is a fantasy to say that this ban will result in a smoke-free generation. It won’t. It will lead instead to the criminalisation of an entire generation of law-abiding people. It will spawn a powerful and dangerous new pack of organised criminals, and the consequent corruption of police and officials. And it will mean, eventually, an end to our chances of genuine and effective tobacco control.


Nowhere else in the world has such a measure been enacted. Perhaps there’s a reason for that.


Martyn Goddard is an independent health policy analyst based in Hobart. He is a former journalist with the ABC in Melbourne and Sydney. His analyses of national and state health systems are here

First published: 2012-08-24 06:37 AM