Don’t Make Nicotine a Prescription Drug

If you thought that nothing could be more hazardous to Oregonians’ health than plastic grocery bags, just wait until the health police make nicotine a prescription drug.

Think I’m kidding? House Bill 2233 is already in the pipeline in Salem. Among other good works, it would classify nicotine, an active ingredient in cigarettes, as a Schedule III controlled substance available only by prescription. It would be a crime to possess nicotine, punishable by up to year in prison, a fine of up to $6,250, or both. And it would be a crime to unlawfully distribute nicotine, with the same punishments.

I testified at the bill’s first public hearing before the House Health Care Committee last Friday. Here is basically what I said:

I have never smoked, and personally don’t care if anyone in Oregon smokes or not, but reality tells us that lots of adults do legally enjoy tobacco, and lots of retailers earn a living selling them cigarettes. Also, the state enjoys lots of tax revenue from those sales, even though it’s torn between getting the cash and encouraging people to quit for their health.

Even if you dislike smoking, don’t be too quick to cheer on the nicotine police, lest you unleash a number of unintended consequences.

First, classifying nicotine as a prescription drug likely will result in a nearly total black market for cigarettes. Who will go to their doctor seeking a cigarette prescription? And what physician will actually write such a prescription? Cigarette sales will go underground, just like illegal drugs. Internet sales will skyrocket and risk-taking entrepreneurs will purchase large quantities and smuggle them into Oregon and onto our streets and school grounds.

Second, speaking of school grounds, ask kids today if it’s easier to get cigarettes on the street or marijuana. If we want to keep cigarettes away from minors, pushing them totally underground is not the way to do it. The higher prices will attract drug dealers eager to hook kids onto their newest profit center.

Third, state revenue from tobacco sales will dry up and blow away, making our budget woes even worse. Of course, legislators can slap massive taxes on those nicotine prescriptions; but since none will be written, no revenue will flow across Salem’s transom.

Fourth, who exactly will this new police state tactic harm? Research shows us who the smokers among us are:

• Cigarette smoking adults are more likely to be uninsured than non-smoking adults.

• Cigarette smokers are in poorer physical condition than non-smokers.

• Cigarette smokers generally have lower incomes and less formal education than non-smokers.

• Cigarette smokers are more likely to be unemployed or unemployable than non-smokers.

In summary, the nicotine police will be going after the less educated, lower income and sicker Oregonians.

Finally, criminalizing a habit, even a bad habit, is a step toward the Nanny State with all the attendant problems and backlash. Oregonians would do well to reject this latest step onto that slippery slope.

Steve Buckstein is senior policy analyst and founder at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.