The real threat is not cigarettes but the unfettered
power of government
By Robert W. Tracinski
web posted October 27, 2003
On October 21, New York's smoking ban -- one of the most stringent in the
nation -- withstood a legal challenge in federal court, an outcome that will
likely embolden anti-smoking activists. But the bandwagon of local smoking
bans now steamrolling across the nation -- from New York City to San Antonio
-- has nothing to do with protecting people from the supposed threat of "second-hand" smoke.
Indeed, the bans themselves are symptoms of a far more grievous threat, a
cancer that has been spreading for decades and has now metastasized throughout
the body politic, spreading even to the tiniest organs of local government.
This cancer is the only real hazard involved -- the cancer of unlimited government
The issue is not whether second-hand smoke is a real danger or a phantom
menace, as a study published recently in the British Medical Journal indicates.
The issue is: if it were harmful, what would be the proper reaction? Should
anti-tobacco activists satisfy themselves with educating people about the
potential danger and allowing them to make their own decisions -- or should
they seize the power of government and force people to make the "right" decision?
Supporters of local tobacco bans have made their choice. Rather than attempting
to protect people from an unwanted intrusion on their health, the tobacco
bans are the unwanted intrusion. Loudly billed as measures that only affect "public
places," they have actually targeted private places: restaurants, bars,
nightclubs, shops, and offices -- places whose owners are free to set anti-smoking
rules or whose customers are free to go elsewhere if they don't like the
smoke. Some local bans even harass smokers in places where their effect on
others is obviously negligible, such as outdoor public parks.
The decision to smoke, or to avoid "second-hand" smoke, is a question
to be answered by each individual based on his own values and his own assessment
of the risks. This is the same kind of decision free people make regarding
every aspect of their lives: how much to spend or invest, whom to befriend
or sleep with, whether to go to college or get a job, whether to get married
or divorced, and so on. All of these decisions involve risks; some have demonstrably
harmful consequences; most are controversial and invite disapproval from
the neighbors. But the individual must be free to make these decisions. He
must be free, because his life belongs to him -- not to his neighbors --
and only his own judgment can guide him through it.
Yet when it comes to smoking, this freedom is under attack. Cigarette smokers
are a numerical minority, practicing a habit considered annoying and unpleasant
to the majority. So the majority has simply commandeered the power of government
and used it to dictate their behavior.
That is why these bans are far more threatening than the prospect of inhaling
a few stray whiffs of tobacco while waiting for a table at your favorite
restaurant. The anti-tobacco crusaders point in exaggerated alarm at those
wisps of smoke -- while they unleash the systematic and unlimited intrusion
of government into our lives.
The tobacco bans are just part of one prong of this assault. Traditionally,
the right has attempted to override the individual's judgment on spiritual
matters: outlawing certain sexual practices, trying to ban sex and violence
in entertainment, discouraging divorce. While the left is nominally opposed
to this trend -- denouncing attempts to "legislate morality" and
crusading for the toleration of "alternative lifestyles" -- they
seek to override the individual's judgment on material matters: imposing
controls on business and profit-making, regulating advertising and campaign
finance, and now legislating healthy behavior.
But the difference is only one of emphasis; the underlying premise is still
anti-freedom and anti-individual-judgment. The tobacco bans bulldoze all
the barriers to intrusive regulation, establishing the precedent that the
rights of the individual can be violated whenever the local city council
decides that the "public good" demands it.
Ayn Rand described the effect of this two-pronged assault on liberty: "The
conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles
or factories -- with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled
from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul free-wheeling to the farthest
reaches of the universe -- but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses
the street to buy a loaf of bread" -- or, today, when he crosses the
street to buy a cigarette.
It doesn't take a new statistical study to show that such an attack on freedom
is inimical to human life. No crusade to purge our air of any whiff of tobacco
smoke can take precedence over a much more important human requirement: the
need for the unbreached protection of individual rights.