Full of Smoke and Fury

Pity poor Joe Camel. With him out at the retirement pastures and the Marlboro man likewise roaming the wild blue yonder, who’s left to seduce pretty young things?

Actually, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like they would have a place to smoke anyway. With public smoking bans (covering bars, restaurants, and the like) spreading like weeds, suddenly the idea of leaving people free to choose a smoking or non-smoking establishment seems shockingly primitive. Under the pressure of non-smokers’ “rights,” dour paternalism, and shaky science, personal liberty—of property and body—has been eviscerated.

Neo-prohibitionist vigilantes argue that non-smokers need to be protected from noxious fumes. Restaurant patrons, they cry, have a “right” to eat in a smoke-free environment, and bar workers should never be “forced” to work in a smoky haze. And these hypocrite liberal lecteurs know the solution: a totalitarian-minded ban on smoking in public places.

Let us be clear about what these bans entail: They deprive private property owners of control over their own assets—calling them “public” smoking bans is quite a misnomer. Forget antiquated notions of private property and tolerance—rabid left-wing activists happily march around under “zero tolerance” banners, proudly advocating complete intolerance of a victim-less crime.

This zealotry is particularly curious because we already have a mechanism that provides for the desires of non-smokers: the free market. Instead of imposing their personal preferences on society, non-smokers can choose to patronize non-smoking establishments; smokers can likewise express their preferences. In response to consumer demand, bars and restaurants provide both smoking and non-smoking environments, and everyone wins.

Perhaps if brief exposure to cigarette smoke posed serious health risks, like sarin gas, regulation would be needed to protect bystanders from accidental contact. But the alleged danger of secondhand smoke depends on sustained, long-term exposure, which limits the risk to the population of volunteers.

Indeed, it is doubtful that smokers endanger bystanders at all. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, out of twenty-three studies of workplace passive smoke, “Only one reported a statistically significant association between exposure to secondhand smoke at the workplace and risk for lung cancer.”

Not that lack of evidence bothers the crusaders. We can’t possibly allow smoking, because bar workers are economically coerced and must suffer under their employer’s terms. Unfortunately, scarcity is a rule on earth, and everyone who needs to work to live is similarly “economically coerced” into their occupation—and some into far more dangerous occupations like commercial fishing or mining. Bartenders and waiters, like fisherman, know the conditions of their employment—presuming that anyone competent enough to carry a dish can find an alternative job—and they take the job because its benefits outweigh the dangers.

Even the perfect victim, voluntarily accepting a small risk, needs to be saved according to nanny-state activists, because smokers impose healthcare costs on society. However, the cold logic of smoking actually produces savings; by dying younger, smokers save society the trouble of paying for old-age healthcare costs and Social Security benefits. Including cigarette taxes, smokers are often actually a net benefit to federal and state treasuries.

Moreover, if potential healthcare costs justify controlling citizens’ actions, there are no limits to government regulation; from sky diving to swimming in pools more than four-feet deep, we regularly engage in risky actions that on average probably raise healthcare costs. Nevertheless, few suggest that the state should prohibit every risky activity.

The dearth of utilitarian logic behind smoking bans doesn’t prevent the self-righteous paternalists, who argue that smokers need to be saved from themselves. After England passed a total ban on smoking in public places, The Guardian newspaper congratulated parliamentarians on rescuing citizens: “[Smokers] need not just encouragement to stop, but help.” Why not cut to the chase and ban cigarettes altogether?

Instead of treating smokers as children who can’t be trusted to make basic cost-benefit decisions, society should take their choices seriously. Despite the availability of safer alternatives (patches and gum) smokers keep smoking—could it be that, gasp, they actually enjoy it? Perhaps smokers are capable of evaluating the costs of smoking—in fact, they tend to over-estimate the dangers—and simply find smoking worth the risk.

Ultimately, smoking bans represent far more than a minor inconvenience to smokers; this neo-prohibitionism paves the road to far greater somatic oppression, because it sanctifies the violation of personal liberty and private property to prevent private harms and freely-chosen dangers. Inventing “rights” to protect—customers’ and workers’ so-called right to a smoke-free environment—self-appointed health-nannies want the power to impose their personal preferences on everyone.

As a non-smoker, I understand how pleasant it would be to simply walk into a bar and demand that it cater to my particular smoke-free preferences, but what gives me the right to impose my personal choices on others? In a liberal democratic society, tolerance of harmless actions is a virtue that enables the peaceful functioning of society—“each person should enjoy maximum liberty, consistent with the like liberty of others.” J.S. Mill’s tolerance, rather than teetotalers, ought to be the model.

And a few alternative vocations for unemployed state nanny-ists? Perhaps designing special safety ladders. Mandating tricycle wheels. Compulsory vegetable-eating regimes? The sky—nay, too dangerous—the ground is the limit.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.