Staff Columnist

Iowa's unprecedented cigarette tax was not as 'paternalistic' as suggested

FILE PHOTO: A lit cigarette burns in Sydney, Australia, May 11, 2017.  REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: A lit cigarette burns in Sydney, Australia, May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

Iowa earned a footnote in game show history this week.

For the past two months, professional gambler James Holzhauer has mounted a legendary run on the TV quiz show, “Jeopardy!” Holzhauer’s aggressive play style earned some $2.4 million during 33 appearances on the show.

Holzhauer’s streak ended in the episode aired Monday, but not before Iowa’s legal history got a moment of airtime.

A $400 clue read, “Paternalism is restricting freedom in our (supposed) best interests, like state taxes on these, which began in Iowa in 1921.”

None of the three contestants came up with the correct response of “What are cigarettes?” It was the only prompt in the episode that stumped the whole panel.

Before I go further, I must give credit to the individualist TV writer who slipped “supposed” into the script. In the context of contemporary politics, so-called “sin taxes” on products such as cigarettes are paternalistic, and their service to our best interests is supposed.

Still, I have to push back against the question’s framing. Iowa’s unprecedented 1921 cigarette tax actually was part of a larger legislative package to legalize cigarettes.

University of Iowa law professor Marc Linder’s 2012 publication “Inherently Bad, and Bad Only” offers an expansive examination of the legal and political history of cigarette restrictions in Iowa. At more than 3,000 pages, it is one of the most detailed accounts of state-level prohibition laws available.


Toward the end of the 19th century, advocates concerned with youth cigarette use fought to prohibit or restrict access to cigarettes at the state and federal levels.

Prohibitionists — led nationally and in Iowa by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — argued the widespread use of cigarettes among school-age boys represented a moral crisis, threatening to turn young men into a generation of do-nothings. Some anti-cigarette advocates, aligned with the established tobacco industry, wrongly suggested the paper in cigarettes made them more toxic than cigars or pipes.

It wasn’t until 1894 that the Iowa Legislature outlawed tobacco sales to people younger than 16 for the first time, “except under the written order of his parent or guardian.”

Only two years later, the state imposed a total ban on the sale and manufacture of cigarettes, among the harshest tobacco control laws in American history, followed by another law imposing fees on sellers.

Iowa’s cigarette restrictions survived legal challenges, but some authorities were unable or unwilling to enforce them effectively. Because the law banned only selling and manufacturing, not possession or consumption, smoking persisted.

After more than two decades of inconsistent enforcement, the Legislature approved a law in 1921 to repeal the ban, establish a licensing system and impose the nation’s first cigarette tax.

In a statement accompanying then-Gov. Nathan Kendall’s signature, he made an astute observation about the nature of prohibitory laws: “a legislative enactment is effective only so far as it is supported by an aggressive public opinion.”

So, yes, Iowa had the first cigarette tax. However, it was produced not by sheer paternalism, but rather by the reality of prohibition’s impotence.

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