The futile war on smoking

When a habit brings intense short-term sensual pleasure but saps your vitality and eats away at your body it's time to quit. I refer of course to the war on tobacco. Tuesday's Citizen reported a StatsCan's finding that smoking has not declined in the past three years and a Canadian Cancer Society spokesman's irritated response, "The reason the smoking rate stopped going down is because of the serious contraband situation. It's completely undermining the progress we'd otherwise be seeing in reduced smoking." Once again bad assumptions lead to bad policy.

First and foremost, the reason smoking declined for so long is that people decided to stop, and the reason it's not falling now is that more people aren't quitting. Yes, people. Apparently one cannot say often enough, in public policy, that individuals insist upon weighing alternatives and making decisions for themselves.

I resent people clinging to their own opinions even after I've told them mine and clearly I'm not alone. But they just won't stop no matter how much we lecture them, and since we cannot make this annoying problem go away, we must deal with it.

So face this awkward fact as well. People stubbornly refuse to follow the instructions of their betters not because they are defective in the way they make decisions. It's that they have unauthorized desires. For instance, the desire to smoke cigarettes. It's not a desire I share or, to be more precise, not one I indulge because I consider the health costs too high. At the risk of committing heresy, I would like to state for the record that smoking is sensually satisfying in many ways from taste to nicotine rush to the physical act. It's the lethal lumps and the heart disease that get me down, to the point that I quit years ago.

Other people feel differently. Whether they enjoy smoking more than I do or like other aspects of being alive less, they haven't decided to quit. Like myself, they weigh the costs including monetary, but the math comes out differently. And because they weigh the costs it is, of course, true that if you can raise the retail price it will make some more people decide that on balance smoking isn't worth it. Unfortunately it will also make others decide that on balance buying cigarettes illegally is. And just as smokers weigh costs and make decisions, so should people concerned with public policy.

At some point we need to weigh the gains from further discouraging smoking against the costs of spreading illegality and corruption. Ideally that point would lie well in the past but since it doesn't I nominate the present. And please don't distract me with the claim of a legitimate public interest in forcing people to quit because the health care system is public. It's financially wrong because smokers tend to die long before they can use up in medical costs all the money they paid in taxes, and it's morally scandalous casually to claim that my body has been nationalized, even with general consent. But it's also irrelevant because the topic here is not the moral legitimacy of attempts to quash smoking through the state but their practical effects.

Some policies, like ordering convenience stores to hide their cigarettes, strike me as simply fatuous. It's not as though smokers will forget the things exist if they temporarily can't see them. (I also remember when the porn was hidden and the cigarettes were in plain view and I am not convinced we are very far ahead morally now that the situation is reversed.) But raising the price sufficiently to create widespread smuggling is pernicious.

It doesn't just turn regular folks into scofflaws willing, at least, to wink at the plainly illegal source of their smokes. It also makes them complicit in the corrupting influence of organized crime on law enforcement. Black market vice needs security and it can afford it, and since crooks cannot dial 911 they must either provide their own or else bribe public authorities.

I find it especially worrying that contraband tobacco smuggling drills holes in the border that can then be used for other purposes.

Here I think not only of illegal drugs but also terrorist weapons and even terrorists. And for what?

Smoking may be dumb. But a policy that corrupts citizens and police, and that menaces public safety, needs very strong positive effects to pass the test of common sense. Does further discouragement of smoking, at this point, seem to you to qualify?

The rush of bossing people about, the tingly puritanical pleasure of snatching peoples' glowing cigarettes from their very lips and stamping them out in front of their faces is a short-term pleasure that comes at too high a long-term cost. Time to give it up.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robsonsmoking