You’ve got a quick answer right? “Because we are a free society and we deserve to have choices.” “We are adults and can make our own decisions.” “Prohibition would never work.” And on, and on, and on. But wait, hold on a second before you get flustered. Don’t get excited, it’s a rhetorical question. This conversation isn’t about making alcohol and tobacco illegal. History has proven that we can easily procure these items on our own, and will do so if banned. Prohibition always spurs a black market. No, this is a conversation about understanding the cost of our habits, and about hypocrisy.
Alcohol kills nearly 100,000 people a year in the United States. Drinking is also the cause of an immeasurable amount of negative externalities such as domestic violence, drunken driving, birth defects, and a slew of non-fatal health issues. Alcohol is the fourth leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. The annual cost of the overconsumption of alcohol to the healthcare system and the economy is $223 billion. Cigarettes? Get ready. Smoking cigarettes causes nearly 500,000 deaths a year, including almost 50,000 from secondhand smoke. The cost of smoking tobacco to the healthcare system and economy is $300 billion a year. Together, these two indulgences take 600,000 lives, with a price tag of over $700 billion dollars a year in the United States alone.
Both tobacco and alcohol are addictive. I’ve personally lost family members to the health effects from each. These are tough losses. Alcohol and tobacco destroy the body in particularly nefarious ways that are especially painful to watch, let alone experience personally. I’ve smoked, and I’ve drank. This isn’t about me preaching a message because I fully understand that I live in a glass house. This is about pondering, “Why do we make cigarettes and alcohol so easy to get and cheap to buy, and so readily abusable with little oversight?” Tobacco advertising and sponsorship is at an all time low, but alcohol? Come on, there are booze ads and sponsorships everywhere. Imagine if all the sudden people got excited to watch the heroin ads during the Super Bowl? But, no one blinks an eye when it’s Bud Light.
This post was inspired by watching the debate over legalizing recreational marijuana here in Massachusetts. As many states now grapple with legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, I am amazed that the arguments against legalization seem like a double-standard coming from people who consume, or at least accept the abundance of, alcohol and tobacco. I see a lot being done to fight legalization, and yet these same folks who are suddenly concerned about their teens having a pot shop in town aren’t concerned about liquor stores near their daycare centers, or the fact that cigarettes can be purchased practically anywhere. Which by the way, shows you the nature of these habits- people want their tobacco and alcohol dealers to be omnipresent.
I don’t expect alcohol and cigarettes to go away any time soon. But, it would be a step in the right direction to create a more vocal discussion about alcohol and tobacco accessibility, costs, and education. Life is beautiful, why not enjoy it the most that we can while understanding the real cost of our habits?