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In all societies at all times, prohibitions exist without provoking controversy. In fact, many are essential for humankind to live together: Most would agree that the prohibition "Thou shall not kill" is a worthy one. It is when prohibitions fall on products or behavior desired by but harmful to their users that they become problematical and often contentious. An extreme form of government intervention, prohibition is often alluring because it seems a more straightforward way to deal with social ills than persuasion or education. Governments act allpowerfully when they legislate out of existence activities of which they disapprove.

Prohibition: A Most Peculiar Policy

History shows that this type of government intervention is not effective. In presence of a popular demand, enforcement proves very difficult if not impossible. Prohibition does not eradicate the banned product; it just drives it underground, giving rise to smuggling and illegal black markets. A gap is created between the legislations in the books and the reality of daily life. On top of these effects, the credibility and legitimacy of the state may be undermined as these laws are largely disrespected.

At the heart of the debate on prohibition lies the crucial moral issue of personal liberty. Should the state protect individuals from harming themselves or should individuals be left to decide for themselves?

Sumptuary Regulations

G reat philosophers like Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) recognized the ineffectiveness of government prohibition more than three centuries ago: "All laws which can be broken without injustice to another person are regarded with derision and intensify the desires and lusts of men instead of restraining them; since we always strive for what is forbidden, and desire what is denied. . . . He who tries to determine everything by law will foment crime rather than lessen it." Many economists of the twenty-first century, most notably the Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, still make the same argument.

The liberal (some would say the libertarian) view of prohibition was perhaps best expressed in 1859 by the famous British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873): "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him . . . because it would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for . . . reasoning with him, or persuading him . . . but not for compelling him. . . . Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (Mill 1956).

To this position, supporters of prohibition reply that in the presence of addictive substances, the individual is not truly "sovereign" and that freedom is an illusion. On the contrary, they believe that abstinence would liberate users (smokers or drinkers or drug users) from their addictions, allowing them to have better and freer lives. Reaching this outcome voluntarily is of course preferable but human nature might be too weak and consequently has to be strengthened by the law.

Prohibiting Tobacco Use: Three Big Waves

In the 2000s, especially in North America, smoking is so strongly stigmatized that prohibition seems close. Many believe the phenomenon is relatively new. Without denying the radical shift since the 1970s, the fact is that the users of tobacco have been ostracized almost right from its introduction in Europe in the sixteenth century.

In the four centuries since tobacco's introduction, the world witnessed three big waves of tobacco prohibition, each in symbiosis with its time. The first one almost covered the globe in the seventeenth century following the Great Explorations with its cortege of exciting but intrusive novelties such as tobacco. The second wave at the turn of the twentieth century was geographically much more limited. Cigarette bans were enacted only in the United States and belonged to the temperance movement of the Progressive era. Humankind is living in the heart of the third wave, which began in the 1970s and continues to the present. Originating in North America, the antismoking movement is largely a phenomenon of the Western world. Clean air and healthiness are preoccupations of wealthy societies. Antismoking proponents argue that eliminating tobacco smoke is one of the easiest steps to improve a heavily polluted environment.

THE FIRST WAVE: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY. Tobacco was introduced in Europe following Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America and rapidly spread around the world through trade. It was immediately controversial; its supporters saw it as a panacea and its enemies as a pure evil. In the first half of the seventeenth century, many states and cities enacted prohibitions, some with quite spectacular penalties if historians are to believe European travelers' accounts, the only sources of information for that period.

There were two different types of prohibition. The first, proscribing tobacco smoking or snuffing in public, was based on moral, religious, and cultural grounds. The other, banning domestic cultivation or manufacturing of tobacco or sometimes importation, was based on financial grounds. Governments always eager for money wished to maximize revenues from the tobacco habit. In order to do so, they needed some control over production, manufacturing, and sale.

A Philosophical Warning

L udwig Von Mises (1881–1973) said in 1949:

But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of the government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. . . . Why limit the government's benevolent providence to the protection of the individual's body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils ? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music. . . .

If one abolishes man's freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The naïve advocates of government interference with consumption delude themselves when they neglect what they disdainfully call the philosophical aspect of the problem (Von Mises 1949).

What appears to be the earliest interdiction took place in Mexico in 1575 when the Catholic Church issued an order forbidding the use of tobacco in churches throughout Spanish America. This first edict was mostly aimed at the converted Indians who were used to smoking in their ceremonies, but later orders concerned priests as well. The Church also banned smoking or snuffing during or before Mass in Europe. A series of papal bulls under Urban VIII and Innocent X from 1624 to 1650 threatened excommunication to tobacco users in churches.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, governments around the globe multiplied edicts and proclamations banning the use of tobacco, especially in public. Western and Central European measures were much milder than Eastern and Asiatic rules. In the latter, penalties were spectacular and terrifying, reflecting the autocratic nature of the political regimes. In all cases, they were unable to stop the spread of the habit in the various populations across cultures and religions.

Probably the most extreme case of punishment for tobacco use can be found in the Sultan Murad IV (1623–1640) of the Ottoman Turkish Empire who decreed death penalty for smoking tobacco in 1633. There might have been as many as fifteen to twenty daily executions. As Count Corti wrote, "Even on the battlefield the Sultan was fond of surprising men in the act of smoking, when he would punish them by beheading, hanging, quartering. . . ." (Corti 1931). In Persia as well under the reign of the Shah Abbas I (1587–1625) there were eyewitness accounts of torture or death inflicted upon tobacco smokers or sellers. Russia was not less fierce. When the patriarch of the Russian Church placed tobacco use in the category of deadly sins, Michael Feodorovitch, the first of the Romanoff czars, prohibited smoking in 1634 under penalties for first offense like slitting of the nostrils or whipping and the death penalty for persistent offenders.

In India, the Mogul emperor Jahangir outlawed tobacco in 1617 with slightly more restrained penalties as smokers were merely to have their lips slit. The Chinese authorities perceived the use of tobacco as subversive of the national interest. A succession of imperial edicts forbade the planting, importation, and use of tobacco in 1612, 1638, 1641 (this time under threat of decapitation) until as late as 1776. Their frequency and repetitive character show how ineffective they were. In Japan, the repeated attempts by the shogun to prohibit the growing and use of tobacco lasted only two decades and were all lifted in 1625. By 1640, tobacco accompanied the tea ceremony and was part of daily life.

In Europe, the most serious attacks against tobacco were in the Holy Roman Empire after the Thirty Year War (1618–1648): Cologne prohibited tobacco use in 1649, Bavaria in 1652, Saxony in 1653, Zurich in 1667, and Berne in 1675. The same type of bans on smoking in public was imposed in some North American colonies (Massachusetts in 1632, Connecticut in 1647, New Amsterdam in 1639).

Tobacco was a foreign novelty and smoking an outsiders' habit. In Europe, the outsiders were the American Aborigines, seen as "Savages." In the Middle East and in Asia, the outsiders were the Infidels and the Westerners. In both cases, those outsiders were highly suspicious, if not threatening. Unsurprisingly, this foreign intrusion provoked strong reactions.

A Royal Enemy

J ames I was King of England from 1604 to 1625. In the first year of his reign, he wrote the most famous work in English on the subject of tobacco. His A Counterblaste to Tobacco (published anonymously) concluded that smoking was: "a custome lothsome to the eye, hateful to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomeless" (James I, p. 36).

Looming also very large was the morality issue. Not only did outsiders with very different cultures introduce tobacco, but also tobacco provided gratification and pleasure to its consumers. The habit was quickly labeled a vice and a sin. Both Catholic and Protestant churches, the loudest being the Calvinists and the Puritans, condemned indulgent pleasure as immoral and contrary to a good life and a good society. The same was true for Muslims. Even though the Koran did not expressly mention tobacco, it condemned intoxication, and tobacco was considered an intoxicant.

Finally, there were some more practical considerations behind the interdictions. Smoking increased the risk of fires, which, in those days of wooden towns, were highly destructive. Tobacco cultivation used land that could have been used for growing foodstuffs—a high opportunity cost for these societies.

A number of states never prohibited tobacco smoking. Instead, they adopted mercantilist measures to regulate, control, and tax tobacco production and trade. A good example is England. In spite of the ferocity of King James I's antitobacco position, tobacco consumption was always legal. Tobacco domestic cultivation was prohibited for a long period but this was done to protect the government income from the tariffs on imports of tobacco, which were set up from the beginning at very high rates.

France used a different and very lucrative strategy for more than three centuries: monopoly control of tobacco at every stage (cultivation, fabrication, and sale). From 1674 until 1791, the king sold the monopoly rights to private authorities; since 1810, this has been a state monopoly. Similar regimes were set up in Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

Once they realized how ineffective were their bans, the prohibitionist states joined the mercantilist club by turning to taxation and regulations. Except in China, all prohibitory legislations were abolished before the end of the seventeenth century, as is shown in the following portrait of Western government regulation of the tobacco industry from the mid-seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries (Rogozinski 1990). In this portrait, state means public administration of a monopoly; farmed indicates that the government granted its monopoly power to a private concessionaire; private means no particular regulations, only general laws regulating trade.

Britainprohibitedhigh dutiesprivateprivate
Francecontrolledfarmed to 1791; state from 1810farmed to 1791; state from 1810farmed to 1791; state from 1810
Italyprohibitedfarmed; state since 1882  farmed; state since 1882farmed; state since 1882
Austriaprohibitedfarmed to 1784; then statefarmed to 1784; then statefarmed to 1784; then state
Swedenencouraged (18th century)prohibited (18th century)mixedprivate
Bavariaprivate since 1717private since 1717  private since 1717private since 1717
Prussiaregulatedstate 1765–1787, then privatestate 1765–1787, then privatestate 1765–1787, then private
Unitedprivateprivate  privateprivate
Statesafter 1776after 1776after 1776after 1776

THE SECOND WAVE: THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. By the nineteenth century, the use of tobacco was generalized among men. A few antitobacco voices could be heard occasionally: for instance, Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote a tract in 1798 titled Observations upon the influence of the Habitual use of tobacco upon health, morals, and property, or Horace Greely, publisher of the New York Tribune, who once described the cigar as "a fire at one end and a fool at the other" (Tate 1999). But their warnings went unheeded until the cigarette made its apparition in the 1880s.

In contrast to the first wave of prohibition, the second wave was largely confined to the United States. There was some organized opposition to cigarette smoking in Britain (where Queen Victoria considered the habit an "abomination" and an offense against good manners) and in Canada (where a national ban was seriously contemplated and regularly debated until World War I) but they did not succeed in passing legislation.

Beginning in the late 1890s, cities and states in the United States passed acts to prohibit the sale, manufacturing, and use of cigarettes (but not pipes or cigars). The statute in Illinois was the shortest lived, being declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court the same year it was adopted. The following table (Tate 1999) summarizes the various forms the laws concerning adults took in 15 states (key: S = sale; M = manufacture; G = giving away; P = possession; A = advertising of cigarettes). Such laws were on the political agenda of 22 other states, in some cases several times. More widespread were the cigarette laws prohibiting sales to minors. By 1890, 26 states prohibited sales to minors, and in 1940 all states except Texas had such laws.

StateAdoptedRepealedBan Content
Washington18931895S, M
Washington1907, 19091911S, M, P
North Dakota18951925S
Iowa18961921S, M
Tennessee18971919S, G
Oklahoma19011915S, G
Indiana19051909S, M, P
Wisconsin19051915S, M, G
Arkansas19071921S, M
Illinois19071907S, M
Nebraska19091919S, M, G
Kansas19171927+ A, P
Minnesota19091913S, M
South Dakota19091917S, M, G
Utah19211923S, A

Enforcement was lax."Tobacco manufacturers sent cigarette papers through the mails; retail dealers sold matches for twenty cents or so and gave cigarettes away" (Warfield 1930). The prohibitions certainly did not stop the rise in cigarettes consumption, as can be seen from the following table (from Doron 1979), which shows average annual cigarette consumption:

YearsAverage Consumption (Billion Units)

Even if concerns with health were not totally absent (cigarettes were called "coffin nails"), the main driving force was morality. For the reform and religious groups who pressured the state to eliminate it, cigarette smoking was an evil, destructive to the moral and physical fiber.

Cigarette prohibition was an element of the broader social reform movement of the Progressive era. The catalysts behind regulation were temperance organizations such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. In order to achieve a social order based on Christian and family values, they condemned and fought frivolous activities such as dancing, drinking, smoking, and gambling.

During the war, billions of cigarettes were distributed by organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and the federal government to soldiers fighting in Europe. Patriotic organizations in Kansas sent cartons of cigarettes to the front lines, even though their sale was illegal in that state. Anyone who questioned these shipments was deemed unpatriotic. Soldiers returning from World War I made cigarette smoking common and more respectable. By 1927, all prohibitory laws, except those regarding minors, had been repealed.

This second prohibitionist wave was no more successful than the first one. Cigarette smoking became generalized among men after World War I and among women after World War II. As Cassandra Tate noted, "Back then, the world was one big smoking section" (Tate 1999). Even though smokers were actually never the majority (42% of adults in 1965), smoking was embedded in the cultural landscape.

THE THIRD WAVE: 1970 TO THE PRESENT. From the end of the 1960s, following the two landmark reports linking smoking to cancer by the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom (1962) and U.S. Surgeon General (1964), the wind turned for smokers. From being a social norm, smoking became an antisocial behavior and smokers became outcasts. Since then, the habit has been denounced, discouraged, banned, and taxed. North America led the crusade, followed by Europe. In the 1990s, the antismoking movement spread to some extent to the rest of the world. With the exception of Africa, all countries have some restrictions on smoking in public places. However, their severity and coverage vary widely, tending to be much milder and much less respected outside North America.

The prohibition battle was fought on three fronts: advertising, smoking in public places, and among the youth. The progression in the United States has been as follows: In 1971, 8 percent of the American population lived in states with some restrictions; fifteen years later, 80 percent of the American population lived in states with some restrictions; in the 2000s, the figure is 100 percent.

The earliest prohibitions around tobacco focused on advertising. Cigarette advertisements were banned on radio and television in 1971 in the United States and Canada (in the latter by voluntary agreement rather than legislation). Some European countries had already done so several years earlier (Italy, 1962; the United Kingdom, 1965). In the 1990s, advertising bans were extended to print media and to sportsevents promotions in many countries, raising much controversy. Probably the most heated example centers on the Grand Prix Formula 1 because of the international character of the competition.

C. Everett Koop

D r. C. Everett Koop was appointed surgeon general by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and he immediately became an outspoken foe of tobacco by advocating "a smoke-free environment by the year 2000." His efforts went beyond medical advisory reports and cigarette package labeling; he became the first surgeon general to use his position to speak out resolutely to the public about the dangers of tobacco use. His 1986 Surgeon General's Report on the dangers of passive smoke became an important tool in the fight to eliminate smoking in public buildings, transportation, and eventually the workplace—including workplaces commonly associated with smoking such as bars and nightclubs. In appreciation of his tireless antismoking efforts and his work on many other public health issues, President Bill Clinton presented Koop with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.


There have also been successful efforts to prohibit smoking in public places. The first regulations in the 1970s established separate smoking and nonsmoking sections in various public places: airplanes, trains, buses, restaurants, halls, and workplaces. Over time, the antismoking movement continued to press for more drastic action, arguing that the segregation did not eliminate the health risk for nonsmokers. Clean Indoor Air acts and regulations have moved to ban indoor smoking by steps: first in flights less than two hours, then all domestic flights, then all flights; in governmental buildings then private enterprise workplaces; in restaurants and finally in bars. Since the 1990s, comprehensive smoking bans in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants, have been enacted in California, New York, Boston, Toronto, and other cities and states.

A crucial target for both the tobacco companies and the antismoking movement are children and young adults, since most smokers start smoking in their teens. In the mid-twentieth century, youngsters viewed smoking as a ritual to adulthood; in the 2000s they consider smoking a rebellious gesture against adults. Legislations banning cigarette sale to minors were thus adopted or reactivated everywhere in the 1990s. Public health officials note that they are the most difficult of the antismoking measures to enforce. Legislation was also adopted to restrict automatic machine cigarette selling that make it possible for children to purchase cigarettes. At the federal and state levels, so-called "Pro-Children" acts are banning smoking in and around state funded facilities providing children's services (for instance, school grounds in New York State).

Previous prohibition movements against alcohol or illicit drugs were generally driven by moral factors. However, the current efforts against tobacco focus on health as the primary concern. However, opponents charge that antitobacco activists often seem to be trying to impose their values on smokers "for their own good." Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, the focus of antitobacco efforts was on the harm to smokers from their own smoking. But over time the focus has shifted to address the harm inflicted to nonsmokers by environmental tobacco smoke.

As public health researchers Ronald Bayer and James Colgrove argue, the strong emphasis on nonsmokers' welfare was an astute strategy in the American cultural context of hostility to overtly paternalistic public policies. The prohibition path was not inevitable: Critics argue that private arrangements between smokers and nonsmokers could have been devised. However, advocates of restrictions on public smoking argue that the rights of employees, even those who work in bars, to a safe workplace free of hazardous exposures is fundamental.

The Future: A Smoke-Free World?

Prohibition is not a dead issue. Advocacy organizations like the Foundation for a Smokefree America work toward a goal of preventing young people from starting to smoke and helping adults to quit. They can point to the sharp decline in the proportion of smokers in the U.S. population: from 42 percent in 1965 to 25 percent in 1990, and 28 percent in 2000. Other countries with similar policies like Canada, Australia, Britain, and Sweden are in the same range of below 30 percent. The fact that smokers tend to be concentrated among people of lower socioeconomic status may have facilitated their stigmatization.

However, the rest of the world is still far behind North America. Smoking rates of the male population are still above 60 percent in countries like China, Russia, and Japan, and approximately 40 percent in India, Brazil, Mexico, and European countries like France and Spain. The World Health Organization predicts that the tobacco "epidemic" will get worse, shifting from developed to developing nations and touching an increasing number of women.

Moreover, the fact that one of out four people continues to smoke in the United States despite an incredibly hostile environment suggests that smoking will not vanish. Social reprobation may even have the unintended effect of making it more attractive to young people as symbols of rebellion. While the addictive properties of nicotine and the financial strength of the tobacco industry are major contributors to the continuing use of tobacco, cigarettes are also deeply entrenched in American history and culture, so much so that their prohibition remains uncertain.

See Also Advertising Restrictions; Antismoking Movement Before 1950; Antismoking Movement From 1950; Regulation of Tobacco Products in the United States; Smoking Clubs and Rooms; Smuggling and Contraband.



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tariff a tax on imported goods imposed by the importing country to protect native industry from foreign competition, protect jobs and profits, and raise revenue. Tariffs typically raise consumer prices of affected products.

paternalistic fatherly. Although paternalism presumes an obligation for the stronger to provide for the weaker, it implies superiority and dominance over them as well. For example, masters often had paternalistic feelings for their slaves, whom they considered child-like.