Republican senator seeks to outlaw tobacco

A Republican senator who is also a doctor is calling for a new era of Prohibition — outlawing cigarette smoking and other tobacco use.

The unlikely demand comes from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the staunchest free-market conservatives in the Senate.

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Coburn, one of two doctors in the Senate, is well-aware of the health risks that come with smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

“What we should be doing is banning tobacco,” Coburn said in a recent Senate floor speech he gave during a debate on a tobacco regulation bill. “Nobody up here has the courage to do that. It is a big business. There are millions of Americans who are addicted to nicotine. And even if they are not addicted to the nicotine, they are addicted to the habit.”

It might appear that lawmakers are inching closer and closer every year to an outright ban on tobacco products, passing waves of taxes and regulations that make it prohibitively expensive to buy cigarettes.

A pack of cigarettes costs about $7 in Washington. In New York City, cigarettes have topped $9 a pack, with more than $5 of that price consisting of government fees.

Earlier this year, Congress expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which included an increase in the federal tax on cigarettes by more than 60 cents a pack.

But there’s no evidence that lawmakers will take on assorted vested interests to outlaw tobacco entirely.

Nevertheless, there’s a new wave of regulation in the works: The Senate is expected next week to pass the Family Smoking Prevention Tobacco Control Act.

Coburn has suggested banning tobacco outright rather than passing a bill that would authorize the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to restrict the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products.

“If we really want to make a difference in health and we want to eliminate dependence on tobacco, what we have to do is to stop the addiction,” Coburn said during floor debate.

The Senate floor was awash with gory stories this past week about the victims of smoking.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) displayed a blown-up picture of Gruen Von Behrens, a teenager who became addicted to snuff and later underwent multiple surgeries to remove his jawbone and half his tongue after being diagnosed with cancer.

Coburn isn’t prone to siding with liberals when they attack their favorite targets, such as gas-guzzling SUVs. Just recently Coburn enraged liberals on the blogosphere when he wondered aloud: “But what if I want to drive a gas guzzler?”

Tobacco is a different story.

Coburn made his case against the bill because he said it would send a mixed message to the FDA, which is charged with ensuring the safety of food and drugs. Coburn’s argument is that there’s nothing safe about tobacco and that it would make more sense for the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to regulate it.

Coburn suggests that putting cigarettes and chew under the authority of an agency that to this point has been tasked with ensuring product safety would only make it tougher to ban tobacco someday.

“In this bill, we allow existing tobacco products not ever to be eliminated,” he said.

Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, supports the bill.

Coburn suggested Democrats are backing the legislation with an eye on helping a key interest group: trial lawyers.

“We have had all of these lawsuits through the years where billions of dollars have gone into attorneys' coffers,” he said.