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Nanny state says no smoking allowed

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 7, 2002

I have never been a smoker, other than an occasional cigar (and I haven't even smoked one of them for two or three years). Certainly, I'm aware of the health risks of smoking which is one of the reasons the habit has never appealed to me. I would never advise anyone to smoke and have at times prevailed upon friends to quit.

Nevertheless, I am troubled by the current wave of anti-smoking fanaticism seen in some quarters. Crusades to make "smoking history" or create a "smoke-free society" are rooted in a type of absolutism that should concern liberty-loving people, especially when these crusades are backed by government coercion.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on smoking in restaurants, bars, pool halls and the like. Now Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has proposed a similar ban in a city that already has what can fairly be described as Byzantine smoking regulations. (I have been to places where smoking was allowed at a particular table but people standing next to the table could not smoke.) Both mayors argue that the people who work in restaurants and bars should be as free to work in smoke-free environments as those in other workplaces. Presumably, bar patrons should be as protected from second-hand smoke as those who sip lattes at the Starbuck's down the street.

In other words, the government should intervene to protect people who drink beer while downing greasy cheeseburgers from the adverse health affects of smoking even if it is against their will. The columnist Jacob Sullum, author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, observed in a 1998 Newsday article: "If smoking is a matter of 'public health,' and therefore subject to government control, then so is any behavior that might lead to disease or injury. And in fact, public health officials target a wide range of risky habits, including not just smoking but drinking, overeating, failing to exercise, owning a gun, and riding a bicycle without a helmet."

There is virtually no end to the individual choices that the nanny state can restrict in the name of keeping us healthy. Government exists to protect individuals from external aggression - these powers should not be expanded in an effort to protect people from their own choices.

Smoking is a voluntary activity; the resultant health risks are non-contagious diseases like lung cancer and emphysema. So why should government get involved? Anti-smoking statists offer three principle justifications.

The first is that the diseases caused by smoking increase insurance premiums and cost the taxpayers money by increasing the cost of public health programs. In order to prevent smokers from being a drain on the public treasury, the government is justified in restricting their behavior. Remember this the next time someone argues that the welfare state, and such proposed extensions of American welfarism as national health care, does not reduce individual freedom. In any event, this argument is false even on its own crass terms. Studies have repeatedly shown that smokers, due to their shorter life spans, impose less of a cost on Social Security and Medicare. Factor in the handsome tobacco-product tax revenues they supply, and smokers are actually not a net cost to the taxpayers.

Those pushing for greater regulation of tobacco products also dispute the claim that smoking is entirely a free choice. Their argument is that smoking is so addictive that people cannot stop when they want to. Now, many people do find it extremely difficult to quit smoking. However, there are about as many former smokers as smokers in the United States, and according to the Centers of Disease Control, over 90 percent of those who have quit smoking did so without any formal treatment. Many of them quit cold turkey. According to the 1994 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, while 73 percent of respondents had tried smoking at one time, only 29 percent had done so in the last month.

The third and most popular argument for slouching toward prohibition is that smoking not only endangers smokers but anyone exposed to second-hand smoke. But the risks of second-hand smoke are largely dependent on concentration and the degree of exposure. The data on even these risks are less conclusive than the data showing the risks smoking imposes on smokers themselves. The evidence does not warrant the claim that second-hand smoke is so dangerous that smoking should only be allowed in private residences.

Ironically, private residences - the one area that anti-smokers fear to tread - are the very places where second-hand smoke is most likely to do damage. The most persuasive epidemiological data about the negative affects of second-hand smoke involve studies of non-smokers living with smokers. This tends to be longer-term exposure than what the Bloomberg and Menino bans seek to prevent. Yet if banning smoking in the privacy of one's home is as an unthinkable violation of private property rights, perhaps we should begin to think of the property rights of business owners.

The neo-prohibitionists overlook a perfectly valid free-market solution to the problem of smoking in the workplace and public accommodations. Businesses should be free to set their own smoking policies on their own property. If people do not want to patronize businesses that allow smoking, they will be free to go elsewhere. It is no different than choosing to go to a bar or nightclub based on whether they play loud music. People seeking employment can also take the presence or absence of smoking into consideration when they look for jobs. This will allow the market to decide which businesses will flourish; such a voluntary measure would also allow more diversity and choice than a one-size-fits-all government-imposed policy.

Rather than allowing people to make decisions for themselves peacefully and voluntarily, many anti-smoking activists prefer to use the health risks of smoking to justify government imposition of their preferences on everyone else. Even those who have no sympathy for smoking should be wary of using government power in this fashion. When it comes to regulating our lives, the health police isn't just blowing smoke.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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