Saturday, January 08, 2005

Smoking and Free Choice

One of the best things to happen in Ireland this year, from my point of view, has been the smoking ban. As I'm sure you know, smoking was banned in all workplaces across the country last year. This is an important point (that I plan to largely ignore in this post!): the ban was not motivated by a nannyish wish to protect smokers from themselves but by an imperative to protect workers from the smoke of others.

Nevertheless, objections to the ban that did not focus on the proported financial losses to publicans (which don't seem to have materialised) tended to suggest that the ban infringed smokers' freedoms.

I suspect that questions of free choice raised by smokers are misplaced here, and not just because the motivations behind the ban related to passive smoking, not to the habits of smokers themselves. The fact is that, even if we acknowledge that harm to the self is perfectly permissable in a liberal society, and we put aside problems with distinguishing between harm to self and harm to others, smoking is just not an arena to which questions of free choice are appropriate.

Given that cigarettes are addictive (in fact, nicotine is as (and in some cases, more) addictive as heroin or cocaine), it is very difficult to argue that one is exercising free choice. Fact is, very many people just can't give up. Arguing that one is exercising free choice when the likelihood is that one could not act otherwise seems rather strange.

But what of the original decision to begin smoking? Well, as a Royal College of Physicians report pointed out, given that most people begin smoking as adolescents, they cannot be seen to have exercised full original choice either (as the report puts it, there was 'an attenuation of free choice initiated in childhood'). In Ireland, according to the Health Promotion Unit, 'by the age of 15 to 17 years one third of all boys and girls are smoking between 3 and 6 cigarettes a day.' Now, given general perceptions we have about adolescents1, it doesn't seem sensible to include a teenager's decision to smoke as within the (at least formal) remit of free choice. We usually acknowledge the good grounds to qualify adolescent choice in terms of their generally under-developed senses of the possible consequences of their actions and in therms of of their less than fulsome levels of resistance to peer pressure. This counts for the decision to begin smoking as much as for other areas.

Given all of this, how should state agents see their roles with regard to smoking? Well, I would strongly argue that restrictions on smoking should be seen, not as preventing smokers from living their lives as they see fit, but as market restrictions, protecting consumers (especially young consumers) from the manipulations of an industry2 that sets about getting children hooked in the hope that they'll have a captive market over the individual's (significanly truncated) lifetime. Bans on tobacco advertising near schools should of course be seen in this context, but so should restrictions on adult smokers. The issue is not about protecting them from themselves but about protecting them from the producers of cigarettes. State action in this arena should be seen as roughly akin to restrictions on the production and uses of asbestos, or on the mis-selling of financial products to consumers. Except, of course, that an addicted child becomes an addicted adult. Free choice? I don't think so.

1 On a completely different, and more serious subject, see here and here.

2 An industry that is hardly celebrated for its straightforward approach to informing consumers.

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