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In Defense of Smoking

That is, in defense of freedom and property.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 20, 2003

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In Defense of Smoking_James Leroy Wilson-That is, in defense of freedom and property. The Chicago suburb of Wilmette has followed the lead of New York City and the entire state of California, in imposing a smoking ban on all restaurants and taverns. The war against tobacco rages on.

Thank goodness. When I'm washing down my bacon cheeseburger and fries with a beer, the last thing I need is second-hand smoke to give me lung cancer. That will shorten the number of years that I could have spent enjoying bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and beer.

Or maybe not. The most extensive study in second-hand smoke confirmed that those non-smokers who were constantly exposed to second-hand smoke for years were something like 40% more likely to get lung cancer themselves than non-smokers who were not so exposed.

The newspaper article from which I gathered that information (which was a while ago) failed to mention one thing: the extreme rarity of non-smokers who get lung cancer.

Let's be extremely generous on this by way of comparison. Say that 10% of non-smokers get lung cancer. Lengthy exposure to second-hand smoke boosts the chances of getting lung cancer 40% - that is, to 14%. And of course, the real percentages are much smaller than that. Even understanding that there is more than just lung cancer to make one ill from cigarette smoke, the chances of prolonged exposure to second-hand smoke playing a unique or definitive role in one's illnesses are slim. It's one of the risks, one of the choices, a person must make throughout one's life. And all things considered, it's a minor one.

But since few families have been spared from the ravages of the smoking-related illnesses and premature deaths of smokers, the crusade against smoking and the tobacco companies is one raid on individual liberty that has at least tacit support among most people. And opposition to smoking bans and the government looting of tobacco companies in a "settlement," is lackluster at best.

But the smoking issue might well be the domestic litmus test that the U.S. embargo against Fidel Castro's Cuba is to foreign policy. They're not the most pressing issues facing America today, but if you're wrong on these questions, you're probably wrong, or at best random and unpredictable, on every other issue.

Since the Cold War ended and Cuba became an isolated Communist country, it ceased to be a threat to the United States, if it ever was. Lifting our trade sanctions would only benefit the Cuban and American people; maintaining them would only hurt both countries. And even if free trade didn't help the Cuban people, there is no justification for restraining Americans from doing business there. Our continued embargo against Cuba is an unnecessary restraint of trade against the American people. Why? because Castro is a brutal dictator. Yet he's no more or less brutal than many other regimes with whom the United States government encourages trade.

To support the embargo against Castro's Cuba is to be wrong on the issue of free trade and, more dangerously, to have a near- religious faith that American foreign policy is morality-based and will one day redeem the world. If you're wrong on Cuba, you're probably wrong on everything that touches American security, foreign trade, and international relations.

Likewise, if you're wrong on smoking in restaurants, you can't be trusted on any other question of personal liberty and property rights.

It is easy to discover the degree of agreement of those who want to ban smoking in restaurants, and those who want to compel "treatment" of drug "abusers" at taxpayer expense. Or who wish to regulate anything and everything. Who want to set wages, standards for hiring and firing, and otherwise involve government into every detail of a person's business and private life. Who believe a person's earnings or profits are "unjust" gain that must be taken by the government to help somebody else. Who believe that homes, businesses, and other privately-owned land can be taken over by the government in the interest of "economic development."

But if you say we should end the embargo on Cuba, you may not be right on everything from there on out, but at least you are right at the start. You'd have reasons, both principled and pragmatic, for your position. Likewise, if you say that it should be up to the proprietor to decide if he wants to allow smoking on his premises, and up to the individual to decide if he wants to work at, or buy from, a business with a smoking environment, you have at least a basic understanding of the relationship between property rights, individual freedom, and free exchange. You would understand that life is about choice, and not about forcing others to live their lives to accommodate your moral preferences or economic convenience.

Abortion is complicated; drug abuse, to me, is uncomplicated, but I understand why it is troubling to others. The right to open a smoke-friendly establishment is, to me, entirely uncomplicated. The owner of a business is like the owner of a house. The owner sets the rules of what goes on there.

What is most troubling about the Wilmette ordinance is that it couldn't leave well enough alone. As Stephen Chapman reported in his November 16 Chicago Tribune column, the vast majority of that town's eating establishments were already entirely smoke-free. He also reported that, in Chicago itself, five hundred restaurants were themselves entirely smoke-free.

What I can't stand is the idea that some people, particularly politicians and the activists who support them, value the principle that government ought to attack personal freedom and property rights even when the rights of non-smokers have already been vindicated by the numerous smoke-free establishments available to them. Smoking must be banned everywhere, individual choice and property rights be damned. Why? Because we (that is, the government) wants to, and can.

The anti-smoking crowd may argue: what if all restaurants everywhere still allowed smoking everywhere on their premises? Then the non-smoker would have no choice; everywhere he goes, there's smoke.

True, but in a democratic government and society, how would that make a difference? If "society" was unconcerned about smoking, then government would be unconcerned also. If nearly everyone smoked, there would be few if any smoke-free establishments. And the laws wouldn't protect the "rights" of non-smokers because they'd be in a minority. But they would still be free to associate with other non-smokers and create their own smoke-free zones, whether in houses or in businesses.

The crusade against tobacco is entirely different. This is a question of principle: the anti-tobacco majority wants to deny freedom of choice, and property rights, to smokers and to those who may want to cater to them. This is tyranny of the majority.

I understand that many people don't like second-hand smoke. They are free to avoid it. News flash: nobody likes rotten apples either, but many prefer purchasing the pre-bagged apples than inspecting, weighing, and bagging their apples at the fruit market. Risk and involuntary inconvenience are two permanent factors within the human condition. You don't like cigarette smoke? Avoid it when you can, deal with it when you think you must. That doesn't make you a victim, it makes you a mature grown-up. It is those who want to prohibit everything they don't like, who are the moral midgets and the ethical adolescents of our age.

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S.E. Shepherd from Chicago, IL writes:
November 21, 2003
Never have I agreed more with James Leroy Wilson than with this article. If ever he and his fellow Libertarians needed an example of government (local or federal) overstepping its boundaries to “protect” us (at the cost of taking away our liberties), I can find no clearer example than these anti-smoking laws.

Though I do not smoke and appreciate the non-smoking policies of certain restaurants, airlines, and other businesses, I feel it is these businesses, and not the government, that should decide such policies. Forcing companies to cater to only a non-smoking crowd limits their clientele, and as Mr. Wilson pointed out, restaurants and similar business are like houses, you live by the host/hostess’ rules. If a restaurant wants to cater to a smoking crowd, it is my decision whether or not I’ll patron their business, but I (or a majority) should not force that business to ban smoking just for me.

Smoking is a filthy habit, but also a difficult habit to break for many people. I am sick and tired of smokers being treated as pariahs or lepers, forced to smoke outside even in the coldest weather. People who think this would/should deter smokers from continuing their habit do not understand the nature of addiction. Rather it would better companies to create “smoking lounges” where smoking workers could sit in well-ventilated rooms, smoke, and continue with their work, rather than sneak outside for a “smoke break.”

I don’t like breathing in second hand smoke, but if I go to a bar, I take it as a given that someone will be smoking there. I don’t like sitting next to smelly, filthy bums on public transportation - should we pass laws against that too?

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