Tobacco is weird and banning it could be a good idea

The thing about using logic and first principles to reason, is that sometimes you can disturb even yourself. Logic, like mathematics, has a life of its own that we can merely follow down its rabbit hole. That’s why mathematicians perhaps a bit counter-intuitively consider themselves to discover things, not to invent them. And regardless of our emotions, no matter how inconvenient, once achieved, the conclusion will just sit there staring at us in the face. What I’m going to say is the result of me following a surprising line of reasoning. So…

If we were to prohibit tobacco, there are few key differences that make that drug different to all other drugs. And, consequently, the prohibition of tobacco, unlike other drugs, would appear as generally a good idea. If you’re interested in why that is, I invite you to read along.

Drug prohibition isn’t usually a very good idea

To offer some background for my views on this matter, I feel most drug prohibitions have failed what comes to increasing the overall well-being of society or keeping drugs out. It’s striking that we can’t even keep drugs out of actual prisons.1 So I find drugs are going to play their part in societies whether we want them or not. And our choice of dealing with them through criminal justice system — rather than treating drug addiction as a social problem and a health problem — has borne some bitter fruit.

By funding organised crime instead of regulated, tax-paying businesses, we’ve created global super cartels. The cartels have been estimated to be worth 13 billion dollars a year.2 For reference, that’s equal to Starbucks’ revenue.3 In Mexico, where the bulk of our drugs come from, during the years 2007–2014 the cartels have been directly responsible for over 160,000 homicides.4 I myself come from Finland; in Finland it would take over 23,000 years for us to produce that amount of murder.5 It’s over twice the civilian casualties of the Iraq war during same period.6 Those facts are on us Westerners who’ve decided to outsource our drug production to the mafia.

Many countries tried to prohibit alcohol, too, but it had the same effects. Except the bulk of the organised crime was not centred in South-America; instead of birthing El Chapos the new policy birthed our very own Al Capones and the violence and corruption that go with it.7 In the streets people were dying because impure alcohol concocted in someone’s bathtub could be incredibly lethal. With these problems of poisonings, overdoses and addictions users were beyond social safety nets — they were criminals, after all.

So because of this line of reasoning I’ve been extremely sceptic towards all prohibitionist policies. “We’ve already seen what a prohibition can do,” I’d reply. “You fund organised crime, you make drugs impure and dangerous, and you take away help from the problem users. We should tax and regulate drugs instead.” So my opinion would basically echo the opinion of the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan and other eminent politicians who have come forth against the drug war in the past years.8

Predicting drug prohibition’s success from three variables

So, to get back on my original point, I find the most pertinent question, above all other questions, when discussing drug prohibition, to ask if it’s even possible to prohibit the substance at hand. That is to say, can it be expected for imprisoning users and patrolling borders to diminish the overall use and problems involved. So how can we know this beforehand? I think we may know this by taking a careful look at the drugs themselves.

I argue that given any drug, there are three key variables with tremendous predictive value of how much prohibition will exacerbate the harm caused by a drug. We could give the following system an extremely boring name, something like the Three Variable Predictive System (of drug prohibition efficacy), or 3VPS. So the three key variables are as follows.

1) High availability / low availability

  • Is it a prescription drug opening almost an unlimited supply for the black market or does it have to be smuggled into the country?
  • Is a typical dose measured in micrograms (millionths of a gram) in which case it is, in effect, invisible to any means of detection and easily sent anywhere in the world via a letter; or is it measured in grams which would make smuggling more of a challenge?
  • Is the drug easy to produce for a layperson, like growing a potted plant, or does it require expert knowledge and equipment such as a laboratory?

2) High toxicity / low toxicity

  • Does the manufacturing process include risks of brewing lethal adulterants into the mix by accident?
  • What does the drug look like; is it a clear liquid or a white powder easily cut for profit by adding cheaper (and possibly toxic) adulterants in the mix; or is it something highly verifiable like a plant?
  • Is the drug generally so impure that it greatly complicates proper dosing and the risk of an accidental overdose?
  • How is the drug administered; for many intravenous drugs it’s the unsupervised and unprofessional act of administration that poses the greatest risks for the user in terms of infections and diseases.

3) High ease of secrecy / low ease of secrecy

  • Is the drug highly addictive needing to be administered daily, or even hourly, greatly increasing the risk of being caught; or is the drug rather being used to seek visionary and/or peak experiences in monthly or yearly intervals?
  • Does the drug leave noticeable cues into your appearance like needle marks or smells?
  • How conspicuous is the user under influence; is he merely stimulated or relaxed, or is he visibly intoxicated?

So, if by using 3VPS we assessed the most common drugs giving 1-5 points to each variable, and then applied a total score, the resulting graph would look something like the following. The details of what produced this chart can be found here.

So the higher the column, the more problems in relation to the already existing harms a prohibition entails for the substance. We can see that the 3VPS makes the prediction that prescription painkillers and alcohol are clearly the two most problematic substances to prohibit. The problems of alcohol prohibition are already well-known, but for prescription painkillers the forecast is also very accurate: prescription painkillers, in fact, do kill more Americans each year than all other drugs combined.9

But the real anomaly on our graph is tobacco. 3VPS seems to make the prediction that prohibition doesn’t noticeably exacerbate the problems related to smoking tobacco. Prompted by 3VPS I gave it an availability score of 2, toxicity score of 1 and ease of use score 1. Let’s zoom in what produced those numbers.

Tobacco’s weirdness broken down

The prohibition availability of tobacco is low but not the worst possible. If a person smokes a pack a day, that would be 14 grams of tobacco.10 Or 420 grams a month. This is a lot of product compared to most other drugs that you measure in thousandths or hundredths of a gram. For criminals to keep up with the demand, with volumes that are hundred or thousand times bigger than with other drugs, would make the whole business unprofitable in comparison. You can grow tobacco yourself too, but to fully supply your habit you need a lot of production space for the plants.

The opposite of tobacco what comes to availability would be alcohol. With normal household equipment you can produce great quantities in very short periods of time. As long as you have sugar and yeast, that is — or something that has both components already, like apples.

The prohibition toxicity of tobacco is the lowest possible. You can’t dilute or cut something as intricate as a leaf and there’s no risk of an overdose. It could actually be argued that the indoor tobacco grown in someone’s home is many times over more safe than the one grown with Third World pesticides in a farm somewhere.

The opposite of tobacco, what comes to toxicity, would again be alcohol. The distilling procedure with which you produce spirits can produce methanol in addition to ethanol. Methanol is lethal for humans in very small quantities. Cocaine and amphetamines are good candidates also as they’re normally cut with unknown ingredients to the point of less than 10% purity.11

The ease of secrecy is the lowest possible. The smoke sets off fire alarms, the pungent smell sticks to everything and the act of smoking is itself extremely conspicuous. And traditionally you have to re-dose hourly which is a fraction for that of other drugs with durations ranging around 6 hours.

The opposite of tobacco, what comes to the ease of secrecy, could be said to be psilocybin mushrooms. Mushrooms are generally used rarely, in monthly or oftentimes yearly intervals, which is explained by the fact that they’re not considered addictive.12 And they’re often used in secluded settings or in otherwise special occasions which makes it almost impossible to tell if someone is in the habit of occasionally taking them.

Smoking is mainly driven by addiction (unlike other drugs)

So, as far as I can tell, unlike other drugs, there are good reasons to believe that we can successfully prohibit tobacco. And I also find that there are, in fact, proper reasons to prohibit tobacco — reasons that are again unique for tobacco and beyond mere health concerns.

Yes, tobacco is unprecedentedly unhealthy: According to World Health Organisation, up to 50% of smokers will die because of causes directly related to smoking.13 That’s over 6 million people every year to which you add 890,000 people dying because of second-hand smoke. Or, as the WHO puts it, it’s “the single greatest preventable cause of death in the world today”. We can see from the paper produced by 40 European Union drug experts in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that tobacco scores right next to methamphetamine in its total harm to the user and the environment.14

But what does society get in exchange of this? Drugs are, after all, used for reasons other than the fun of being an evil criminal! Stimulants like cocaine are used for their euphoric effects usually in parties. Alcohol or opioids as depressants relax you and temporarily numb away your worries. And psychedelics, like psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, are often used to induce spiritual experiences with great personal importance for the experiencer.15

Nicotine is a central nervous stimulant that binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain boosting certain cognitive functions such as attention and memory.16 But that’s not the reason it’s most often used.

Nicotine is extremely addictive.

When heavily dependant users of cocaine are asked to compare the urge to do cocaine to that of having a smoke, 45% say the urge to smoke is as strong or stronger than for cocaine. When the same is asked of heroin addicts, you get 38%. And 50% for alcoholics. Except… From all users of cocaine only 8% are dependant. From all users of alcohol only 15% are. From smokers 90% are daily users and 50% clinically dependant.17

According to a large 2011 population survey in the USA with 21,157 participants, 70% of American smokers wanted to quit.18 That seems to indicate that most smokers don’t actually want to be smokers. So we are not talking about free citizens practicing their natural rights; we are talking about victims of addiction who then, worst of all, go and pass the torch to a new generation of kids in an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of tragedy.

Smoke is very bad, vapour is better

So we could prohibit tobacco, and if my reasoning is correct, make the world a better place as a result. But I feel it’s important to also note, that tobacco is not synonymous with nicotine. Yes, nicotine is terrible, but it’s only a piece of the problem that’s tobacco.

American Cancer Society explains that tobacco smoke comprises thousands of chemicals from which we recognise at least 70 that cause cancer (not to mention other diseases).19 There’s cyanide, formaldehyde, arsenic, lead, radioactive elements and many others. They further explain that most of this stuff is directly related to burning tobacco leaves, not nicotine itself or other tobacco products. Smoke, any smoke in your lungs, is extremely toxic.

So, nicotine is extremely addictive, and definitely causes cancer in its own right — but the mere act of removing the smoke would have truly a remarkable effect for the well-being of society. So I feel pertinent to present a third option for your consideration between prohibition and not-prohibition.

That is using nicotine in a more responsible way.

E-cigarettes are electronic devices that, instead of creating smoke, create vapour by heating flavoured liquids. This is basically a more fancy version of boiling water in a kettle and then breathing it in. So, roughly speaking, instead of spreading around toxic smoke and nicotine, you spread around vapour and nicotine. It’s still not healthy, but at least it has about 69 cancerous chemicals (that we know of) less.

In sum

So, I introduced the Three Variable Predictive System, or 3VPS, in my effort to break down what qualities of a substance will lead to a failed prohibitionist policy. Those are high expected availability, high expected toxicity and high expected ease of secrecy in a post-prohibition environment. This led me to believe that tobacco, in these regards, is unlike any other drug.

I showed that as other drugs are used also to catalyse meaningful experiences, tobacco is mainly used because of its addictive properties — which then are, depending on the exact definition, either about the same or many times worse than those of hard drugs. I showed that tobacco is one of the most harmful substances used, so breaking this insidious cycle of intergenerational addiction is called for.

And in the end I put forth a possible compromise between prohibition and the current state. According to experts, the most harmful part of tobacco is the smoke, not nicotine. So, if nothing else, vaporisation is a more responsible and modern way of injecting nicotine into one’s body.


[1] Howgego, Charles. “Prisoners Say ‘spice’ Use Has Tripled, Fuelling Violence, Illness and Debt.” The Guardian, June 1, 2016, sec. Society.

[2] “How Much Are Mexico’s Brutal Drug Cartels Worth?” CBC News. Accessed May 27, 2017.

[3] “Starbucks Corporation Fiscal 2012 Annual Report.” Mumbai, 2012.

[4] “The Staggering Death Toll of Mexico’s Drug War.” FRONTLINE. Accessed May 27, 2017.

[5] “Homicide 1754-2015.” Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, January 16, 2017.

[6] “Documented Civilian Deaths from Violence.” Iraq Body Count, n.d.

[7] “Prohibition in the United States.” Wikipedia, May 26, 2017.

[8] Germany, SPIEGEL ONLINE Hamburg. “Lift the Ban! Kofi Annan on Why It’s Time To Legalize Drugs – SPIEGEL ONLINE – International.” SPIEGEL ONLINE. Accessed May 27, 2017.

[9] “Prescription Drugs Are More Deadly Than Street Drugs.” Psychology Today. Accessed May 27, 2017.

[10] neo.enviro. “How Much Does a Cigarette Weigh?” View Know Do, January 26, 2012.

[11] Jones, Andy. “London, This Is What’sActually in Your Cocaine.” Vice. Accessed May 27, 2017.
“PROBLEM AMPHETAMINE AND METHAMPHETAMINE USE IN EUROPE.” European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2010.

[12] Amsterdam, Jan van, Antoon Opperhuizen, and Wim van den Brink. “Harm Potential of Magic Mushroom Use: A Review.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 59, no. 3 (April 1, 2011): 423–29. doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2011.01.006.

[13] “WHO | Tobacco.” WHO. Accessed May 27, 2017.

[14] Amsterdam, Jan van, David Nutt, Lawrence Phillips, and Wim van den Brink. “European Rating of Drug Harms.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, n.d. doi:10.1177/0269881115581980.

[15] Griffiths, RR, WA Richards, MW Johnson, UD McCann, and R. Jesse. “Mystical-Type Experiences Occasioned by Psilocybin Mediate the Attribution of Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance 14 Months Later.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 22, no. 6 (August 1, 2008): 621–32. doi:10.1177/0269881108094300.

[16] Heishman, Stephen J., Bethea A. Kleykamp, and Edward G. Singleton. “Meta-Analysis of the Acute Effects of Nicotine and Smoking on Human Performance.” Psychopharmacology 210, no. 4 (July 2010): 453–69. doi:10.1007/s00213-010-1848-1.

[17] Hilts, Philip J. “Is Nicotine Addictive? It Depends on Whose Criteria You Use.” The New York Times, August 2, 1994, sec. Science.

[18] “Quitting Smoking Among Adults — United States, 2001–2010.” Accessed May 27, 2017.

[19] “Harmful Chemicals in Tobacco Products | American Cancer Society.” Accessed May 27, 2017.


One thought on “Tobacco is weird and banning it could be a good idea

  1. Pingback: Appendix to the tobacco post | Riku Soikkeli

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