Let's Sell Single Cigarettes, Not Just Packages

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Among the provisions of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act signed into law by President Obama on June 22, 2009 is a reaffirmation of the 1996 prohibition against the sale of cigarettes in "packages containing fewer than 20 cigarettes."

The theory behind outlawing the sale of single cigarettes is that selling them one at a time would slowly, subtly addict young people and others who might purchase a single cigarette and get hooked, when they would otherwise have avoided smoking entirely.

I think the opposite might well be true-that selling single cigarettes could prevent addiction, potentially saving countless lives and billions of dollars a year in health care costs. I don't understand why the government has any right to regulate in what quantity a company packages a legal product, anyhow. But let's leave that aside for now.

From a psychological perspective, I believe that selling single cigarettes would actually slow the progression of addiction for the millions of Americans who begin smoking each year. aMost folks would at least notice as they begin telling the cashier that they'll take five, then seven, then 14 of "those Marlboro ones over there." They wouldn't have the luxury, from their first cigarette purchase, to simply say, "Oh, and a package of Marlboros."

A package? aYou mean you want 20?

Selling cigarettes singly would make consumers notice the progression of their dependency, in much the same way that many of my patients get concerned if their use of narcotic pain relievers goes "above six," or if they find themselves drinking "three glasses of wine a night." Some of the trouble for wine drinkers, in fact, derives from them opening whole bottles of wine and not wanting to "waste" it. And I have been able to wean them off it, by first getting them to purchase single serving bottles.

It would be a great tool for me as a doctor if I were able to suggest that my patients who want to give up cigarettes start by buying singles, never packages. aThat way they could go to the store and pick up 11 cigarettes one day, and 10 the next, and nine the next, and so on.

If consumers found themselves returning to their local convenience store to buy two cigarettes, say three or four times a day, the power of tobacco addiction would be more obvious to them.

It certainly seems reasonable to study whether single cigarette sales would fuel addiction or help prevent it. aWe could start with allowing the practice in just one state and monitoring whether overall cigarette sales increase or decrease over a 12-month period. aI believe they would decrease.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com.Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.