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Scientists already know that nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs next to heroin. Those who are dependent on cigarettes on a daily basis are at risk of being labeled drug addicts. But how easy is it to tell the difference between drug addiction and choice of habit? And what is our obligation as a society to help those who are addicted and prevent others from getting hooked?

It isn’t just that smoking cigarettes is addictive; it is deadly too. And when we start seeing loved ones dying early due to lung cancer then the issue becomes more and more urgent to address.

There is, however, a distinct hypocrisy in how the U.S. government is trying to manipulate others to quit smoking.

On one side of the coin the government knows and propagates much information on the hazards of smoking cigarettes through different ad campaigns, as well legislation that requires cigarette companies to print warning labels on every pack. They recognize it as both a highly physical and psychological addiction, and rightfully so.

Many smokers understand that smoking is bad yet they still can’t quit. But what then does the government do to deter people from this nasty habit?

One popular choice is to raise taxes. President Obama signed a law earlier this year to raise taxes from 39 cents to $1.01 per pack of cigarettes and from 19.5 cents to 50 cents per pound for chewing tobacco, making it the single largest cigarette tax hike in our history. But how effective is this strategy and in what ways does it have unintended consequences?

For many in our country, cigarettes are not felt to be a luxury but a necessity. In economic terms, we would say cigarettes have a low elasticity in demand, meaning individuals are usually willing to pay more for the same quantity. We know full well how difficult cigarette withdrawals can be, we know how addictive nicotine is, yet government puts individuals in a situation where they are forced to fork more money out of their pockets to sustain their addiction. Some of these people are already experiencing difficult financial troubles. Is this right?

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Raising taxes on cigarettes does more harm than good. Sure, some may grow the courage to quit. In fact, according to the Washington Post, 17.5% of New Yorkers quit after the first tax increase and ad campaign in 2006, but it doesn’t distinguish which was actually more effective: the tax increase or the ad campaign?

We can’t necessarily trust government pseudoscience on whether or not tax increases actually lower smoking rates. But even if tax increases do help some to kick the habit, the majority of smokers are being taken advantage of. It is even worse for those who are addicted the hardest.

This is no way to help people.

I would like to see society focus more on helping others through education rather than tax coercion. This means respecting others free will and free choice, but still looking out for their best interests.

To start, I appreciate the efforts of both profit and non-profit ad campaigns, education programs, and treatment facilities that help those who are willing to seek it.

But what about those who aren’t yet willing to seek help but may in fact need it? To what extent do we have the right to intervene on someone’s personal habits?

We then find ourselves back at the original question posed earlier: To what extent are individuals smoking by their own free choice, and to what extent do they need to be saved from themselves? What right do we have to intervene? And how much intervention is too much if we want to continue living in a free society?

These are the types of questions that we need to ask ourselves as a society. The answers will have major implications on future government policy – not just with cigarette smoking – but other health risks such as poor eating habits and the obesity epidemic.

How helpful is government force in correcting these problems while still respecting others’ free choice?

Or are there more effective (and less harmful) ways we can move society to a better state of health?

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