Anti-Smoking Movement a Cancer on American Liberty

By Don Watkins | Any Rand writer and research specialist

Newport Beach is considering banning smoking in a variety of new places,
potentially including parks and outdoor dining areas. This is just the latest
step in a widespread war on smoking by federal, state, and local governments--a
campaign that includes massive taxes on cigarettes, advertising bans, and
endless lawsuits against tobacco companies. This war is infecting America with
a political disease far worse than any health risk caused by smoking; it is
destroying our freedom to make our own judgments and choices.

According to the anti-smoking movement, restricting people’s freedom to
smoke is justified by the necessity of combating the “epidemic” of
smoking-related disease and death. Cigarettes, we are told, kill hundreds of
thousands each year, and expose countless millions to secondhand smoke.
Smoking, the anti-smoking movement says, in effect, is a plague, whose ravages
can only be combated through drastic government action.

But smoking is not some infectious disease that must be quarantined and
destroyed by the government. It’s a voluntary activity that every individual is
free to abstain from (including by avoiding restaurants and other private
establishments that permit smoking). And, contrary to those who regard any
smoking as irrational on its face, cigarettes are a potential value that each
individual must assess for himself. Of course, smoking can be harmful--in
certain quantities, over a certain period of time, it can be habit forming and
lead to disease or death. But many understandably regard the risks as minimal
if one smokes relatively infrequently, and they see smoking as offering
definite value, such as physical pleasure.

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Are they right? Can it be a value to smoke cigarettes--and if so, in what
quantity? This is the sort of judgment that properly belongs to every
individual, based on his assessment of the evidence concerning smoking’s
benefits and risks, and taking into account his particular circumstances (age,
family history, etc.). If others believe the smoker is making a mistake, they
are free to try to persuade him of their viewpoint. But they should not be free
to dictate his decision, any more than they should be able to dictate his
decision on whether and to what extent to drink alcohol or play poker. The fact
that some individuals will smoke themselves into an early grave is no more
justification for banning smoking than that the existence of alcoholics is
grounds for prohibiting you from enjoying a drink at dinner.

Implicit in the war on smoking, however, is the view that the government
must dictate the individual’s decisions with regard to smoking, because he is
incapable of making them rationally. To the extent the anti-smoking movement
succeeds in wielding the power of government coercion to impose on Americans
its blanket opposition to smoking, it is entrenching paternalism: the view that
individuals are incompetent to run their own lives, and thus require a nanny-state
to control every aspect of those lives.

This state is well on its way: from trans-fat bans to bicycle helmet laws to
prohibitions on gambling, the government is increasingly abridging our freedom
on the grounds that we are not competent to make rational decisions in these
areas--just as it has long done by paternalistically dictating how we plan for
retirement (Social Security) or what medicines we may take (the FDA).

Indeed, one of the main arguments used to bolster the anti-smoking agenda is
the claim that smokers impose “social costs” on non-smokers, such as
smoking-related medical expenses--an argument that perversely uses an injustice
created by paternalism to support its expansion. The only reason non-smokers
today are forced to foot the medical bills of smokers is that our government
has virtually taken over the field of medicine, in order to relieve us inept
Americans of the freedom to manage our own health care, and bear the costs of
our own choices.

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But contrary to paternalism, we are not congenitally irrational misfits. We
are thinking beings for whom it is both possible and necessary to rationally
judge which courses of action will serve our interests. The consequences of
ignoring this fact range from denying us legitimate pleasures to literally
killing us: from the healthy 26-year-old unable to enjoy a trans-fatty food to
the 75-year-old man unable to take an unapproved, experimental drug without
which he will certainly die.

By employing government coercion to deprive us of the freedom to judge for
ourselves what we inhale or consume, the anti-smoking movement has become an
enemy, not an ally, in the quest for health and happiness.