As a smoker who has long enjoyed it, I congratulate Pierre Lemieux on his
analysis of the economics of smoking. Alas, he is self-consciously naive in
one respect: namely, in his supposition that there is any rational public
argument over smoking in the United States. As a bemused observer in New
York for the past decade (which is not the worse place in the United States, as far as
smoking laws are concerned), the first thing I noticed when this whole
debate began in the late 1980s, was that reason was tossed out the window.
Professor Lemieux's noble but hopeless attempt to bring logic to bear on the
matter ignores the basic purpose of the public campaign: it was (and is) to
end smoking, period. It was evident, from the outset, that the initiatiors
of the public campaign did not have anything but this purpose in mind. It
is, plain and simple, a direct violation of the individual's right to choose
and the framers of the debate knew that. What they felt was simply that
smoking was a sufficiently serious health risk to merit such a violation.
Naturally, the disaster of Prohibition is still too recent for a "law" to be
passed against it. But a carefully sustained psychological campaign might
do it. And it is psychologicalin my understanding, the purpose of the
laws in airplanes, restaurants and public spaces was not about "second-hand"
smoke. It was precisely geared to make a smoker feel like a "social
pariah" and thereby induce him to quit. That was all there was to it.
Why haven't smokers "fought back" and "demanded" their rights or
highlighted the reasoning given in articles, like the excellent one of Professor
Lemieux? Firstly, the targets of the campaign are (relatively-speaking) the
poorer segments of our society. Secondly, they are too embarassed: they
know their smoking causes externalities and that they are at least partly
guilty of half the accusations against them.
Smokers are not stupid. They make the calculation and take it. We are
certainly aware of the health risks (yes, every smoker knows that it is not
a healthy habitand they do not need a surgeon-general's warnings to
realize that; their bodies tell them soon enough).
But I believe smokers were surprised by the campaign. One can understand
that the Surgeon-General's office and other health officials should wish to
push for lower smoking in the populationthat is their metier. What I
believe utterly surprised smokers was the literal armies of unaffected,
unrelated people that signed up as foot-soldiers in this "war"and I am
not referring to opportunistic legislators.
I have lived in many places in my lifeincluding notoriously totalitarian
places such as the Soviet Union and under African dictatorships. But I must
admit I don't think I have ever come across "groupthink" as intense, as
ferocious, as widespread, as unreasonable and inexplicable as the one that
has come around in the United States over the smoking issue. No other issue
in modern society seems to suffer from this single-mindedness. The public
debate on drugs, guns, etc. and other social ills have several sides to it.
The smoking debate is more like a one-sided conversation.
So once again, let me congratulate Professor Lemieux for trying to make the
smoking debate more like, well, a debate.
July 18, 2000
To the Editor:
Smoking has negative externalities that such things as skiing do not have.
People skiing does not harm me, while the harm to me of people smoking
consists not only of possibility causing me to develop emphysema or cancer
but the certainty of harming me in one or more of the following ways
depending on the circumstances: sore throat; stopped up nose; headache;
objectionable smelling hair and clothes; and reducing my pleasure in eating
when smokers are present.
Is it reasonable that, while someone can be arrested for slapping me
without provocation, they can with impunity cause me pain by smoking?
The most serious cost imposed on non-smokers by smokers is killing them
and/or destroying their property with the fires they start. It is true, of
course, that people using other products, such as automobiles, kill people,
but drivers killed by other drivers derive benefits from automobiles.
Non-smokers injured by smokers derive no off-setting benefits from
cigarets, pipes, and cigars.
As was long ago pointed out, others' freedom stops at the end of my nose. A
basic function of government is protecting me from being harmed by others,
and the consumption in my presence of cigarets, pipes, and cigars harms me.
It is not unreasonable for me to expect the government to protect my right
not to forced to inhale smoke.
Some say that the market can solve non-smokers' problems by some businesses
appealing to non-smokers by not allowing smoking. I disagree. Following
this logic, you could say that there is no need for laws forbidding people
from assaulting you on private property, as some businesses can appeal to
people who do not wish to be assaulted by not allowing it on their premises.
The cuneiform inscription in the Liberty Fund logo is the earliest-known written appearance of the word "freedom" (amagi), or "liberty." It is taken from a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.