November 1, 2019

Drug War vs Tobacco War

In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs.  In 1965 all cigarettes began requiring a health warning, and in 1970, these warnings began being in the name of the Surgeon General.  Additionally, in 1970, cigarette ads were banned from TV and radio.

We’re now almost 50 years later.  Talk about a long war, for 50 years, we’ve been in two public health wars.  Let’s have a look at the results.  Parenthetical numbers below refer to the references section at the end of the article.

Usage and Costs


In 1965, 42.4% of adults smoked, this has now fallen to 16.8% (1).  Additionally, there is now a reverse correlation between smoking percentage and level of education, with 43% of those having a GED smoking, while only 5.4% of those with a graduate degree smoking (1).  In 2015, state and local governments made $18 billion on tobacco tax  revenue (2) and the federal government made another $14 billion in tobacco tax revenue (3), for total tax revenue of $32 billion.  According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, smoking-related illness in the US costs $168 billion in medical care (4).

Illicit Drugs

According to the Cato institute, the war on drugs costs us $41 billion per year (5).  Interestingly, the healthcare costs for illicit drugs are only $11 billion, 6.5% of the healthcare costs of tobacco (4).  Furthermore, in 2016, only 10.6% of people over the age of 12 used illicit drugs in the past month (6).  This is compared to 23.5% of the population over 12 that has used tobacco in the past month (6).  So, the actual health impact to society and number of users is far lower than tobacco.  Finally, Cato estimated that if illegal drugs were legalized and taxed at the rates of tobacco and alcohol, that would yield $46.7 billion in taxes.  This means that we are forgoing over $87 billion in local, state, and federal budgets.  While statistics vary by source and specific drugs, it is clear that we have not seen any substantive decline in drug use in the past 50 years and if anything it may have increased.

Summary of Costs and Usage

So, to summarize, the percentage of people smoking has fallen consistently for the past 50 years and continues to set new record lows.  However, illicit drug use has not experienced these same declines in spite of substantial effort.  We currently receive $32 billion in tax revenue from tobacco.  By contrast, the war on drugs is costing us $89 billion per year, touches half as many people, and if successful will have 1/13 the impact to national healthcare costs the eliminating tobacco would have.

What are we getting for our $89 billion?  NOTHING!  The drug overdose death rate has actually quadrupled in the past 2 decades (7).  This isn’t working!

Who Makes the Profits

Another issue that contrasts tobacco vs illicit drugs is who makes the profits.  In the case of tobacco, the $80 billion that is spent per year (CDC) goes to large corporations that are owned by stock holders.  While I hate to profit off this industry, this money helps everyone’s retirement accounts and other investments.  Contrast that to illegal drugs.  Americans spend $100 billion on illegal drugs per year (8).  Where does this money go…straight to the underground economy.  This money funds gangs, illegal weapons, human trafficking, foreign drug organizations, and a host of other despicable crimes.


No, I’m not going to argue that any illicit drugs are safe or good for you.  That said, when you smoke a cigarette, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re about to put into your system: nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, arsenic, ammonia, and host of other wonderful chemicals.  However, because this is a heavily regulated industry, you don’t have to worry about an unpleasant surprise addition.

Contrast this to illicit drugs.  Often what kills people isn’t the drug they were intending to take, but rather the “add on” that it was laced with (for instance crack being laced with fentanyl).  By legalizing and regulating these drugs we could ensure that people who choose to use them know exactly what they are getting, know there won’t be any surprises and know the quality and potency.


In conclusion, the war on drugs as failed!  Just like the prohibition on alcohol failed and was eventually overturned, it’s time that we admit the the War on Drugs has failed and try a new approach.  Conveniently, the war on tobacco provides a wonderful alternative road map that’s been incredibly successful.  By using this road map, we’d see:

  1. A decrease in drug deaths
  2. $100 billion rerouted from the underground economy back above ground
  3. A budget crisis for gangs, human traffickers, and other organized crime
  4. $89 billion budget betterment to federal, state, and local budgets.
  5. Huge decreases in incarceration and associated increases in GDP

I understand that many don’t want to legalize because it amounts to a tacit governmental approval of the activity.  However, we’ve proven time and again in our country that bans on vices don’t work!  We’re much better off legalizing, regulating, and taxing.  Let’s do this, I’m sure we can find something more productive to do with $89 billion than locking up drug users.



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