Normally reliable free-market conservative Senator Tom Coburn has announced his opposition to moving the oversight of tobacco to the Food and Drug Administration.  The Senate’s only physician explains that this move makes no sense for a product that routinely kills hundreds of thousands of people each year when the FDA’s mission is to ensure the safety of products for Americans.  Instead, Coburn has called for an outright ban on 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. …

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.

On the merits, the idea would be a disaster.  Think of everything we’ve noted about the prohibition on marijuana, and multiply it by the number of tobacco users in the United States.  Not only would such a plan put thousands of farmers out of business and their supply chain as well, it would take an enormous law-enforcement effort to impose a tobacco prohibition.  The US would have to make itself into a police state to stamp out tobacco, and also to handle an explosion in a new black market in cigarettes.  The tobacco companies would collapse, and along with them a big portion of American pensions and savings.  Even in the best of economic times, it would be a disaster, and today it would put America instantly into a depression.

But is Coburn serious?  I doubt it, for all of the above reasons.  He seems to be pointing out a huge hypocrisy in government attitudes on tobacco.  Politicians love to rail against Big Tobacco and demonize them at every opportunity, but in truth government is as addicted to tobacco revenue as smokers are to the product.  Democrats rammed through a big increase in federal taxes to pay for a pandering expansion of S-CHIP, rather than just reforming the system to get resources to the children who need it.  Republicans, such as Governor Charlie Crist in Florida, don’t have any reservations about expanding tobacco taxes for their own purposes, either.

Plus, Big Tobacco provides a particular Democratic interest group a hefty income, too:

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.

Indeed.  This looks like a dare from Coburn to his liberal colleagues in Congress: If you really hate tobacco, let’s go cold turkey on its revenue and ban it.  Otherwise, stop with all the hypocrisy and leave oversight where it belongs, in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and let the FDA worry about food and drug safety.