Standing up for smokers’ rights

Published in The Drum ABC Online on 1 June 2011 under the title “It’s time to stand up for smokers’ rights”.

Perhaps it is inevitable that people will always need to find a minority to hate. Whether it is based on race, or sex, or sexual preference, or lifestyle choice, or language, or religion, or personal habits… the instinct to discriminate, to distrust “different” people, and to enforce conformity is a constant theme throughout history and throughout the world. If this instinct was purely personal, then it would not be a big issue. People could simply choose to associate with those people they prefer, and we could all live in peace. But sadly, many groups want to use the government to force their bigotry on others.

Over the past 100 years there have been some great improvements in social policy, as the government removed most of their discrimination based on race, religion, sexual preference and sex. There are a few outstanding issues (women in the military, gay adoption rights, special rules for Aborigines) but on the whole we now have less official discrimination in these areas. Sadly, not all minorities have been this lucky.

While some minorities become popular political causes, other minorities are on the receiving end of negative political populism. Politically correct campaigners will loudly support the “good minorities” such as GLBT or immigrant groups, but they are equally loud in their condemnation of the “wrong minorities”. This seems to indicate that we are not becoming more tolerant… we are simply switching our bigotry on to other areas.

Some of the biggest victims of this modern discrimination are smokers.

Immediately the anti-smoking bigots will insist that they are not really bigoted, because smokers deserve to be punished. Of course, that is exactly what the racists, sexists and homophobes say. 

Most people want to consider themselves a “good person”, and so bigots often feel the need to create artificial reasons to justify their intolerance. The excuses range from the plain wrong to the desperate, but the common theme is that in all cases the freedom of smokers is considered irrelevant. If a “good minority” was dismissed this quickly there would be cries of pain from an outraged media and a horde of moralising pundits. But when it comes to smokers… the “moral police” join the lynch mob and declare smokers guilty by definition.

One of the first lines from the bigots is that smoking is bad for you. True, but so what? Lots of things are bad for you, but life is about more than longevity. 

People often make trade-offs between “quality of life” and “quantity of life”. We make many decisions that will marginally increase our chance of death, but for a benefit. People choose to go skiing, or sky-diving, or motorbike riding, or drinking, or working in a mine, or eating fatty food, or playing contact sports… knowing that there is a health risk but determining that the benefit is worth the cost. In a free society, people should be free to make their own life decisions.

The health Nazis don’t get this point. They really seem to think that the whole purpose of life is to live for as long as possible… and if you ever make an “unhealthy” decision, then you are simply wrong and need to be controlled by your owner the government. A whole army of these anti-fun fanatics have been put together in the Preventative Health Taskforce, so that the government knows exactly how to micro-manage your life. 

As the IPA explained, “The Taskforce recommends 39 accords, scorecards, standards, reviews, action research projects, frameworks, compacts, programs, partnerships, systems, initiatives, criteria, surveys, strategies, agencies, curricula and campaigns for obesity alone”. In New Zealand, the fun police have even claimed that when you have two drinks in a night, you are officially “irrational” and therefore had no fun. (Read Eric Crampton’s response here.)

At the core, the idea here is that smokers are just “wrong” and they need to be fixed. As a Facebook friend recently put it, “since you do not act like an adult but like a 13-year-old kid that thinks that smoking is cool, the government has to set limits to your destructive and anti-social behaviour”. 

Sadly, the author didn’t even seem to notice the totalitarian nature of his sentence. Imagine the response if somebody made the same comment about one of the “good minorities”.

Thankfully, when most normal people are pushed they admit that people should be free to choose their own lifestyle. The debate then turns to “externalities”.

The first externality used to justify anti-smoking intolerance is the health costs of smoking that fall on the taxpayers because of our socialist health system. Again, there is truth in this claim. The most obvious solution would be to introduce a smokers-premium on health insurance, but that would require health policy reform, which is always difficult in our modern welfare-democracy (note, private health providers already have a smokers premium). 

So the next best thing might be to set the tax rate to cover the marginal health costs of smokers. The logic seems fool-proof… until you realise that smokers already pay over 16 times their marginal health costs in tobacco tax. The government’s National Drug Strategy report estimated net health costs of $318.4 million per yearin 2004/05 (this may be an overestimate as it does not count the savings from dead smokers not getting the pension). In the same year the tobacco excise was $5,237 million

Since then, tobacco excise rates have increased by 50 per cent, from $0.22 per cigarette up to $0.33 per cigarette.

So if this was the real reasons for the bigotry, then as soon as the bigot hears the facts they should immediately agree to a massive tax cut on tobacco. Do you think that’s likely?

At some point, the “passive smoking” externality argument will come up. There is some evidence that people who live in close contact with heavy smokers for several decades have a marginally higher risk of health problems. While this evidence is often exaggerated, the balance of probability suggests the risk is real. Passive smoking is being used to ban smoking in all manner of places – including office buildings, restaurants, pubs, near doorways, cars, and even parks. But this argument falls apart quickly once you introduce the concept of “private property rights” and free movement. 

With private property rights, each person can decide the rules on their property… and other people can make a free decision whether they enter that property or not. Some people will ban smoking indoors (which is fairly common these days) while some may allow smoking. If you enter a place that has smoking, you have accepted the passive smoking cost voluntarily, just as if you voluntarily paid a cover charge or voluntarily smoked a cigarette yourself. Voluntarily agreeing to the terms of entry means that passive smoking on private property is not an externality.

Some confused souls may claim that buildings are not “private property” if many people like to go there. Of course, this makes no sense. Private property simply means that some person or group (not the government) owns the property… and this doesn’t stop being true just because a place is popular. And the main point necessary for the “private property” solution to work is that the owner is able to set the rules and people are free to go where they want. This isn’t changed when/if a place becomes popular.

Other confused souls will admit that consumers have a choice about where to go, but employees don’t have the same choice. Again, this makes no sense. There are many jobs with different levels of risk, and people can decide whether they are willing to accept those risks before they apply for the job. Nobody is forced to work in mining (which is more dangerous than passive smoking), but some people make that choice. Nobody is forced to work on ski fields (which is risky), but some people make that choice. Likewise, nobody would be forced to work at a smoking pub, but some people will make that choice. There are benefits and costs to all jobs, and each person should be free to make their own choices.

The health impact, health costs and passive smoking excuses don’t hold up, so the anti-smoking bigot will need to find another excuse.  The amazing thing about this debate is that as the anti-smoking arguments are destroyed… the soulless bureaucratic prudes never seems to question their intolerance. It is as if the intolerance is a starting point, and the actual arguments are an after-thought.

The latest excuse, and the last refuge of a scoundrel, is the “what about the children” argument. In one sense, this argument is fool-proof. Everybody agrees that children need to be protected, and so if you can imply even a hint of a child getting hurt then you can justify all sorts of government action. It is interesting to note that this was a significant argument used against mixed race marriages, and is one of the main arguments currently used against gay rights. The “what about the children” argument is also the throw-away line used to justify the welfare state (putting aside the significant damage that welfare dependency does to children).

It is true that children might be somewhere near a smoker through no choice of their own (ie by choice of the parents), and that this may marginally increase health risks. But there are many parts of parenting that will dramatically increase or decrease health risks, life expectancy, life experience, education levels, social interactions, happiness, and opportunities. Ultimately, parenting decisions need to be left to parents, who are in the best position to make the delicate trade-offs involved in parenting. The vast majority of parents will not be intentionally blowing smoke in the faces of their children… and if there is a parent doing that then it is likely there are much bigger problems at play. 

Given that we are willing to tolerate much more significant parenting mistakes and more consequential child-rearing decisions, then it is hypocritical to suddenly insist that having a smoking parent is an unforgivable sin. Further, even if you insist that the government should set strict mandates about exactly how to bring up a child, this has no relevance for the many smokers who don’t have children.

Against these fragile fig-leaves of excuses for bigotry we have the simple fact that millions of innocent Australians want to be left alone to enjoy their own lifestyle choices. Smokers are not inferior people less deserving of freedom. Their preferences do matter, and their choices should be respected. You don’t have to like smoking to agree with this point – you simply need to show a bit of tolerance and accept that the world includes many different types of people, and there is room enough for all of us. Even the “wrong” minorities.

Author: John Humphreys

Chief Economist at The Australian Taxpayers Alliance, Sessional Lecturer at the University of Queensland, and National President of the Liberal Democrats.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: