“With each puff, the victim inhaled polonium, unaware that her cigarette was killing her.” While this might sound like a line from a bad spy novel (no doubt featuring rogue former KGB agents), it is actually what smokers experience with each puff from a normal cigarette. Tobacco plants pick up polonium via contamination from fertilizer which is made from phosphate rock that happens to be rich in uranium. Some of this contamination comes through absorption via the roots and some comes from contamination via the leaves.
Obviously, people will point out that the radioactive material in tobacco is not the major threat. After all, tobacco is chock full of dangerous stuff and it is generally a bad idea to inhale any smoke. That is quite correct, but it is worth noting that the polonium makes tobacco even more dangerous. It is, in fact, estimated that it causes about 2% of the smoke caused lung cancers. This means that it kills thousands of people each year.
It is tempting to simply say that people know the risks and if they prefer to harm themselves, then that is their right. Laying aside the matter of second hand smoke and the fact that smokers often become health care burdens for the rest of us, there is also the fact that tobacco could be made less dangerous by reducing or eliminating the polonium. This can actually be done without undue hardship on the part of the tobacco industry.
In fact, the industry studied the matter for quite some time and found that changing fertilizer would have a significant impact as would using a different sort of filter. Also, something as simple as washing the tobacco leaves would have a significant effect (it might also remove other contaminants). Not surprisingly, the industry decided to stay quiet about its findings and elected to not actually address the polonium problem because “removal of these materials would have no commercial advantage.”
While my natural hatred of tobacco inclines me to advocate simply outlawing it, my moral principles require me to allow people to engage in self-harm under certain conditions (such as knowing what they are doing). As such, I have to oppose an actual ban on tobacco. I can, however, consistently support bans on public smoking (you can smoke, but I do not want to share your smoke). I can also support making tobacco less dangerous to those who smoke it on the grounds that this would enable them to get their enjoyment while harming themselves less. I am assuming that people who smoke do so for the allegedly enjoyable aspects of the drug use rather than the aspects that involved cancer and death. As such, I would infer that smokers would not object to having a product that would be somewhat less likely to hurt them. If they do smoke for the harm, then they can easily find substitutes, such as burning and inhaling plastic.
Tobacco companies might object to the cost of making their product less dangerous, but it would seem odd for them to claim they have a right to poison people with radiation when they could easily remove it. To use an analogy, imagine if cell phones actually gave off cancer causing radiation that caused thousands of deaths and that this flaw could be cheaply and easily rectified. It would seem to be unacceptable for companies to refuse to do so on the grounds that they would gain “no commercial advantage” and that it would cost them a little money to kill fewer people. The same would seem to hold for tobacco.