Should tobacco be criminalized?

Should tobacco be criminalized?

An Argument for Criminalization

If you were to load three Boeings’ 747’s with 450 individuals and crash them into the earth, every day for one year, you would now have the same number of people who die from cigarette smoking annually (CDC, 2012). While people argue over the merits of freedom of choice and the right to smoke, the inescapable fact remains that smoking kills 443,000 people every year which is one in every five deaths in the United States. More deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and all murders combined (CDC, 2012).

The question of whether tobacco is a choice for consumers is negated by the overwhelming public health issue that tobacco creates. Tobacco is not just a matter of individual choice but instead a public health issue that concerns users and nonusers alike. As a public health issue, tobacco use should be regulated more like problems such as illicit drug use. In fact, going by the governments established standards concerning drug categories, there is no reason why tobacco is legal. Dangerous drugs are categorized as Schedule I. This schedule of drug, which is considered the most dangerous of drugs, e.g. cocaine, heroin, crack, etc… is characterized by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The criteria for being classified as a Schedule I drug are defined as:

Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence (DEA, 2011).

Believe it or not, tobacco has no medical use and an obvious high potential for abuse. Tobacco has been cited by the Surgeon General, the CDC, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse stating:

Like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, nicotine increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which affects the brain pathways that control reward and pleasure. For many tobacco users, long-term brain changes induced by continued nicotine exposure result in addiction — a condition of compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative consequences (NIDA, 2012).

Nicotine is the most addictive drug in our society…every bit addicting as heroin. (Surgeon General) (Surgeon General, 1988)

Nicotine is the psychoactive drug in tobacco products that produces dependence. Most smokers are dependent on nicotine (CDC, 2014).

Despite every major health organization in the United States and the Surgeon General claiming that nicotine is a drug, the FDA has not scheduled it as a drug. The FDA does regulate tobacco by enforcing warning labels and programs aimed at discouraging tobacco and nicotine use, but it does not classify nicotine as a drug. Under the Tobacco Control Act, the FDA regulates the packaging, selling, and manufacturing of all products that contain nicotine as it would any medicinal drug (FDA, 2012). However, the FDA does not consider nicotine a drug and as a result it is still legal to buy and sell over the counter with age restriction. One must ask “Why is tobacco legal?”

If one examines nicotine based on the criteria of the Controlled Substance Act, it is evident that nicotine fits the Schedule I description. First, nicotine has no accepted medical use. Dating back to the 1950s, studies of tobacco were being committed that showed it was ineffective as a medical treatment (Dickson , 1954). As early as the 1600s the medical use of tobacco was questioned. “Philaretes, a doctor writing in 1602, raised many criticisms, especially of the indiscriminate use of the herb for all diseases in all age groups without specific measured prescriptions.” (Charlton, 2004) In 1612 the physician and scholar John Cotta noted that “Is not this high-blased remedy now manifestly discovered, through intemperance and custome, to be a monster of many diseases?” The Surgeon General, as of 1988, presented reports claiming that nicotine had no medicinal use (Surgeon General, 1988).

The second criterion of the Schedule I drug is that of addictive quality. Nicotine is considered every bit as addictive as heroin and cocaine (Surgeon General, 1988) (NIDA, 2012) (CDC, 2014). Studies of nicotine show that it has the same impact on pleasure centers of the brain that other illicit and addictive drugs have as well as causing compulsive drug seeking and use. Perhaps the most revealing point of nicotine being an addictive substance is the fact that people will experience withdrawal which is a phenomena that only occurs in addictive substances (NIDA, 2012).

Finally, the third criterion for the Schedule I drug is that of its dangerous nature. The facts show that nicotine is perhaps the most lethal of all drugs. Here’s the facts:

1. In the United States, tobacco is the leading preventable cause of “death, disability, and disease.” (NIDA, 2012)

2. The CDC reports that the death rates resulting from cigarette smoking are estimated at 443,000 annually (CDC, 2014).

3. One fifth of all deaths in the United States are the direct or indirect result of tobacco (CDC, 2014).

4. More deaths occur from tobacco than from “HIV, illegal drugs, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and murders combined.” (CDC, 2012)

The dangers that nicotine presents are clear and obvious, when one examines the facts.

Criminalizing Tobacco is an argument that has been presented in the past. In 1988, the Surgeon General began comparing nicotine with illicit dangerous drugs such as heroin and cocaine (Surgeon General, 1988). The question of why nicotine is not listed as a Schedule I drug is not an easy answer to find, but it does exist. The government, specifically the DEA, states that the reason for nicotine not being considered a dangerous drug is due to financial reasons and the belief that prohibiting them would be ineffective. This is the DEA’s reason for why tobacco is legal:

There are… a number of substances that are abused but not regulated under the …[Controlled Substance Act]. Alcohol and tobacco…are specifically exempt from control by the CSA. In addition, a whole group of substances called inhalants are commonly available and widely abused by children. Control of these substances under the CSA would not only impede legitimate commerce, but also would likely have little effect on the abuse of these substances by youngsters (DEA, 2011).

This reasoning is flawed in many aspects. Primarily, this flaw can be seen in the fact that even without legislation prohibiting nicotine, its use and abuse has been greatly diminished. For example, in the last 20 years the rates of tobacco users dropped significantly from about 25% to 15% of the population (Maugh, 2010). This rate decrease is largely due to civil and legal actions limiting tobacco use (such as 18 age restriction) and outlawing tobacco use in public areas. Thus legal action and policy is effective in reducing drug use.

Another flaw in this reasoning is the idea that criminalizing nicotine would impede commerce. The problem with this logic is that it assumes that the United States financially benefits from nicotine use. This logic does not pan out when one examines the facts. Here are the financial facts concerning tobacco.

The average annual revenue generated by individual states was about $19 billion in cigarette and tobacco taxes (Medical News Today, 2008). This is all states combined for the year 2008. However, during the same time period, the average annual cost in the United States was $96 billion (CDC, 2014). This cost included direct medical care, lost productivity, and exposure to secondhand smoke. This means that every state in the union lost millions of dollars due to tobacco consumption and use.

Because nicotine is so deadly, it is not financially beneficial to commerce in the United States. It would be more financially beneficial to prohibit the substance in order to discourage its use. The far reaching impacts of prohibiting tobacco would include reduced healthcare costs, increased productivity, and more money for important social programs such as job building and economic development. Criminalizing tobacco, for these reasons, is the prudent and responsible choice.


CDC. (2014, February 6). Economic Facts About U.S. Tobacco Production and Use. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC. (2014, February 6). Smoking & Tobacco Use. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

CDC. (2014, February 5). Smoking Cessation. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from Center for Disease Control:

Charlton, A. (2004). Medicinal uses of tobacco in history. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 292–296.

DEA. (2011). Drugs of Abuse 2011 Edition DEA Resource Guide. Washington , D.C., United States.

Dickson , S. A. (1954). Panacea or Precious Bane. Tobacco in 16th Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library.

FDA. (2012, April 16). Section 206 of the Tobacco Control Act - Tar, Nicotine, and Other Smoke Constituent Disclosure to the Public. Retrieved November 3 4, 2022, from the Food and Drug Administration.

Maugh, T. H. (2010, Septemeber 8). U.S. smoking rate hasn’t changed CDC says. Los Angeles Times, p. 16.

Medical News Today. (2008, September 3). State, Federal Governments Dependent On Tobacco Tax Revenue, Strength Of Industry. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from Medical News Today:

NIDA. (2012, December). DrugFacts: Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Surgeon General. (1988). Surgeon General’s Study On Tobacco, Called It An Additive Drug (1988) (Action News 7). Retrieved February 4, 2014, from Internet Archive:

Photo by shahin khalaji on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Mon, Apr 05, 2021. Should tobacco be criminalized? Retrieved from

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