Déjà Vu: Prohibition Edition


Khanh Tran

At the end of October, the Board of Health in Westminster, Massachusetts proposed regulations that would criminalize the sale of tobacco and nicotine products, intending to improve the welfare of the community—especially the youth—as a whole. Had the proposal not been snuffed out by the impassioned opposition of the public on Wednesday, Nov. 19, the town would have been the first in the nation where no one could purchase cigarettes. Despite the health board’s meaningful intentions, the people were correct in their convictions, averting what would have been an outrageous development.

“The tobacco companies are really promoting products to hook young people,” Westminster Health Agent Elizabeth Swedberg said in The Boston Herald. She is correct in that modern youth is easily tempted by the consumerist nature of tobacco advertisements. Yet, banning the product would not solve the problem. In fact, it only eerily conjures up a specter of déjà vu from the past—the disastrous experiment of the Prohibition Era enacted by the 18th Amendment and subsequently repealed by the 21st Amendment.

Now, do not get me wrong—I am not advocating mass smoking or something like that. I am merely pointing out the arbitrary nature behind the ban. If there is one thing that the failure of Prohibition taught us, it is that banning something only encourages people to seek it, often with extreme and illegal measures. It did not end drinking and will not end smoking. It will only intensify it by morphing it into an underground activity, followed by the rise of new crime syndicates in pursuit of the inevitable black market of tobacco. Then, it is only a matter of time before crime rates, corruption, and the eventual outcry for repeal arrive. What would the people get from this predictable set of sequences? Nothing except wasted tax dollars.

Not to mention that such regulations would trespass on people’s personal freedoms and harm the local businesses of Westminster, leading to not only an additional burden on the current state of the economy but also to individual liberty. “I think people are really angry because they feel this is being shoved down their throats,” said Joyce McGuire, a Westminster nonsmoker who opposes the regulations, in the NY Daily News. By attempting to ban cigarettes on the grounds of necessity for the public good, these health board legislators are imposing their own ideals of morality into the community, trampling over the people whose country was founded on the principles of limited government and natural rights.

As such, it is no wonder that the people of Westminster were so vocal in their dissent. Michael Fratturelli, owner of Westminster Liquors said in International Business Times that no one is going to “stop smoking because this town decided to ban cigarettes”— a ban that would result only in the value of the local businesses going down. Indeed, just like alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco products have sadly become an integral part of the economy. People will only travel to neighboring towns to obtain the products, nullifying this whole ban and exacerbating its economic detriments even further. Instead of tackling this issue head-on with such brute-force tactics, legislators should emulate President Barack Obama’s 2015 federal budget proposal and increase the tax for tobacco product, using the subsequent revenue to fund education. Not only would this discourage the overall trend of tobacco consumption but also put the much-needed emphasis on education, an important factor in shaping the youth’s perspective in life. It determines the path they are on.

The people of Westminster spoke out against the policy not because they adore cigarettes and its side effects, but because they feared that the United States is relapsing back to its faulty trend of prohibition. Across the country, there has been a rising trend in laws attempting to restrict products that are deemed too harmful to youths, from the defeated New York City soda ban to the looming junk food laws. Instead of swinging its banhammer around, what the country needs to do is shift its focus to education, which defines where the new generation is heading towards.