To celebrate the birth of a nation based on freedom and liberty, California has banned smoking in prisons starting today. (The link goes to a Seattle Times version of the LA Times article since the original is behind a registration barrier.)

FOLSOM, Calif. — Doing time in a California state prison won't be quite the same beginning today. Inmates, once given tobacco and matches along with their prison blues and toothbrush, will now be forbidden to smoke.

Born of legislation passed last year, the tobacco ban was sold as a boon that would offer a big drop in prison health-care costs and clean air for inmates and officers who don't like to light up. The Republican assemblyman who pushed the ban last year predicted it would save $280 million a year.

Actually, when you point out that my taxes were being used to pay for inmate health care, the ban starts to sound like a much smarter idea. Then again, I've long been a fan of creative punishments that could save us lots of money and reduce crime at the same time.

Back when the measure first passed the Assembly last year, Josh Barkin thought it was a bad idea because cigarettes keep the prisoners "satiated".

These laws -- which are becoming commonplace -- are ridiculous, for a number of reasons. First, letting prisoners smoke gives them something to do, and it keeps them satiated. Second, any money saved on prison healthcare has got to be balanced out by the cost of [a] helping these inmates quit (nicotine patches, for example), [b] dealing with the increased agitation resulting from prisoners who've smoked for years suddenly not being allowed to.

I've got an idea! Why not cut out the nicotine but pass out heroin? Mr. Barkin does make a good point, though, about the dire need to reduce the prevalence and acceptability of prison rape.

Meanwhile, Brad Rodu says that inmates should be switched to smokeless tobacco.

There is a very simple alternative to a complete ban on tobacco and nicotine: Corrections officials should offer smokers alternatives in the form of smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco satisfies smokers and serves as an effective permanent substitute, because it rapidly delivers a dose of nicotine comparable to that from smoking.

For comparison, nicotine medications provide only about one-third to one-half the peak nicotine levels of tobacco products, which is unsatisfying for many smokers. In addition, medicinal nicotine is expensive and designed to be used only temporarily. All of these reasons are why nicotine replacement has a paltry 7 percent success rate among American smokers.

Smokeless tobacco use is vastly safer than smoking, which is entirely consistent with the stated health goal of Leslie's bill. Our research documents that smokeless use imposes only about 2 percent of the health-related risk of smoking. The only consequential adverse health effect from long-term smokeless tobacco use is oral cancer, but even this risk is much lower than that associated with smoking.

In fact, the average reduction in life expectancy from life-long smokeless tobacco use is only 15 days, while the average smoker loses almost eight years. For further context, the risk of death from long-term use of smokeless tobacco (12 deaths in every 100,000 users per year) is about the same as that from driving a car (15 deaths in every 100,000 users per year).

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