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Hands off the baccy!

In light of the recent phased cigarette ban announced in New Zealand, staff writer Douglas Gibb argues that such prohibitions are badly thought out.

In December 2022, New Zealand passed the Smokefree Environments Bill. Among its provisions was an annual rise in the age required to purchase tobacco, meaning that anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 would never be able to legally purchase cigarettes. The introduction and passage of this legislation have prompted similar discussions in Westminster and Holyrood.

Here I will tackle two of the many arguments preferred by those in favour of prohibition, what I call the individualist argument and the collectivist argument. The former argues that smoking has such a detrimental effect to the individual’s health that the government has the right to ban it. As the New Zealand Health Minister puts it, “there is no good reason to allow a product to be sold that kills half the people that use it.” The latter argues on the basis of the cost to public services like the NHS. To illustrate the difference in these schools of thought, consider free climbing. The individualist argument says that free climbing is an inherently dangerous activity for the participant. Regardless of the damage being done to society, people should be prohibited from free climbing for their own good. The collectivist, however, says that unlike smoking, which leads to 76,000 deaths a year in Britain, free climbing is a sufficiently niche activity thus relatively few people receive fatal wounds from it, as a result, it places little burden on the NHS.

The first argument, which promotes the government stopping you from doing self-damaging things for your own good, is a paternalistic and anti-choice argument. It is at odds with the principles advocated for by Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Paine and Mill, whose ideas form the bases of modern social and liberal democracies. Of particular relevance to the debate over a tobacco ban is the harm principle.

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.

Gutenberg, Mill, On Liberty, p. 18.

So if you blow smoke into someone’s face, and in doing so force them to smoke passively, the harm principle applies. However, what a total smoking ban would do is prevent people from going into an open space, like a park, and stop them from smoking even when no one is nearby. This is exactly the sort of government action Mill thought would be an illegitimate use of force. The Enlightenment view that has played a primordial role in shaping modern democracies says that government primarily exists to prevent conflict between people that would otherwise occur in a state of nature (the complete absence of government), e.g. disputes over who owns a piece of land. What someone wishes to do with their own body does not fall into the category of “conflict between people”, meaning the government has no legitimate authority to prohibit their consumption.

Besides the right to live a dignified life, the right to bodily autonomy is arguably the most fundamental right a person has, and in prohibiting a person from consensually consuming this or that substance, the government is violating that fundamental right. After all, we do not want the government to micromanage our lives and decide what’s best for us in all cases.

In extreme examples, it is reasonable to use force, but this should be done exclusively when there are no other options available. Suppose someone is about to cross a bridge that is, unbeknownst to them, unsafe. Stepping onto it would result in a collapse and the person falling into the water below. It is reasonable to presume the person doesn’t want to drown, and so it is justified to grab them. But with smoking there is no such imminent risk of harm, the harm is long-term, so there are other opportunities for intervention besides simply banning cigarettes. In particular, the government should recognise that smoking is symptomatic of wider social problems; this is why you see the crossover between school-aged smokers and truancy. For instance, ASH says that young people who smoke are often truants and 95% of young smokers do so to cope with stress. When policymakers realise this, the discussion can move away from treating symptoms and towards tackling causes, which is where the intervention should occur.

It is true, of course, that not all smokers smoke entirely voluntarily. Lots of smokers are addicted to nicotine, meaning there is an element of coercion. But phasing out smoking completely, in the way New Zealand is doing, leaves no room for those who are not addicted to choose. Most people have heard versions of Blackstone’s formulation, “We are to look upon it as more beneficial, that many guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should suffer“, and find it broadly agreeable. An analogous issue exists here. In banning all people from smoking, we are not just depriving the many addicted people of their liberty, we are also depriving those who are not of their liberty. But why should their liberty be diminished because others are in the throes of addiction?

Now, the second argument. People like Wes Streeting, a self-described binge drinker, want to introduce a NZ-style ban because of the “transformational impact” such a ban would have “on the health of individuals and on the health of the nation as a whole.” The impact on the individuals has already been addressed above, but there is still the nationwide effect to contend with. NHS England says that smoking costs them £2.6 billion a year, while alcohol costs them £3.5 billion a year. While there are around five times more regular drinkers than smokers, it is the damage done to society as a whole which we should refer to as this quantifies the collective damage of the product. So if we were to ban smoking because of the burden it places on the health service, we would have to extend this to a total booze ban. But no one, except those who want to “submit to the dictates of Leviathan” (Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan), would seriously entertain such an idea. By reduction, we see the absurdity of banning smoking on the basis of public burden.

Moreover, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projects that the treasury will take in £10.4 billion from tobacco duties, meaning any cost to society from tobacco sales is far outweighed by the revenue gained from those sales. So a tobacco ban would actually make it harder to fund public services like the NHS.

So whether argued out of concern for a person’s health or the burden on our public services, we see that arguments in favour of a smoking ban overstep the bounds of non-authoritarian democracy and are inconsistent with regard to other substances. As such, the government should keep its hands off the baccy.

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