I am often amused to hear people talk about how "pathetic" smokers are. How they crowd outside in the rain and cold to feed their habit and so on, completely forgetting that the reason smokers have to cluster outside is because others force them to do so. Think of it this way. There is another habit that fills people's bodies with stimulants, stains their teeth, forces them to constantly feed their habit or undergo withdrawal, and the users often say they cannot function without it. Yes, it is coffee. If we made coffee drinkers do it outside, they would look much like smokers, clustered in the cold and rain. yet since coffee is an accepted drug, we do not mock them the way we do smokers. A large part of what seems so "pathetic" about smokers is forced upon them by a society which has decided they are somehow less deserving of sympathy than actual criminals.
And that brings me to my point. Smoking, for all the opprobrium we heap upon it, is not much different than drinking alcohol, drinking coffee, even eating meat. All have some negative health connotations, and yet are enjoyed by those who engage in the activity. However, some of these are viewed as socially acceptable and others are not, and so we pretend that those addicted* to coffee are somehow different than those who smoke. Yet, in truth, both are doing things that differ very little**.
Of course, some may hear this and take it as an invitation to ban alcohol, coffee, meat and a host of other "dangers", but I would ask the opposite. By what right do we ban actions of others that are no threat to others?*** By what right do we say "This activity seems unacceptable to me, and I recognize no benefit, and so no one can do it"? If we were to consistently apply this logic, then atheists could ban religion, as they see it as harmful and find no benefit in it. Those who find the ideas in the writings of Jefferson or Madison dangerous could ban those books, as they bring no benefit. Likewise, those who think coffee is harmful without benefit could ban that.
And the list could go on.
I know, many will think this is a small matter, and wonder why smoking is such a big deal. The same argument was offered when I spoke about drug laws, but the point is significant. If the government can decide what is "worthwhile" and what is not, if it can decide what is "of no benefit" then where do we draw the line? The whole point of freedom is to allow every individual to decide what is worthwhile for himself, regardless of the opinions of others. Once we accept that the values of some are not worthwhile, or that some individuals can force their values on others, we no longer have freedom.
But, as with my writing on drugs, I am sure some will find reason after reason to argue against this. The health risk, the "societal cost" all the dodges used remove freedom time after time. How about this? We stop paying for others' health care, and then let them decide whether or not they will accept the costs if they find it beneficial. And, if you worry about smokers forcing others to breath their smoke, why not allow every business to decide whether or not to allow smoking, then nonsmokers can avoid those places which allow smoking, while smokers are not driven out of every store by government fiat?
Or have we forgotten freedom to such a degree, that the values of the majority can be forced on the minority even when there is no question of rights being violated? And, if we have, then what is there to prevent the state from doing anything at all?
* I argued before ("Some Stray Thoughts on Drug Laws", "Emotional Appeals Are Not Proof") that addiction is used too freely in our culture and applied to situations where there is no physical withdrawal syndrome. However, in this case, nicotine and caffeine both do cause some withdrawal syndromes, so the term is, for once, completely appropriate.
** I know society has been sold on second hand smoke having near mythical potential for harm, but most reasonable studies show the risk is quite small. (It is quite amusing watching people in cities, inhaling the exhaust from a bus, then curling their lip at a cigarette passing fifty feet away from them. As if the incredibly diffuse particles from that single cigarette could match the concentrated carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other fumes from the buses and cars passing less than 10 feet from them.)
*** Yes, nonsmokers talk about second hand smoke, but then try to ban smoking even in private homes, or in tobacco shops where only smokers enter. And, when confronted with the small risk of second hand smoke, they then turn to the "foul smell". However, until we ban cheap perfumes and enforce rules about bathing, I think the "foul smell" argument a rather weak one, to say the least. As I recall, there is no constitutional guarantee against unpleasant odors.
Clearly the same argument applies to drug laws as well, and I would argue that drugs, alcohol, tobacco and pretty much any other private activity which violates no rights falls into the same category. It probably will meet with disapproval from some, but whether you agree or not, you must answer the question, if the government can ban drugs to "protect you from yourself", then what can't the government do? If we are to be treated as if we were all wards of the state, to be protected from our own supposed ignorance, then what justification exists for us asserting any sort of independence? And what limit could there logically be drawn on government power? (Cf "Who Does It Harm?", "It Doesn't Matter to ME...", "Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of "Social Costs"", "Drug Legalization", "For Your Own Good", "The Right Way", Utopianism
Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "The
of Perfection", "The
Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "In
of Pornography", "Free
Absolute Rights and the Absurdity of "Balancing Tests"", "The Case for Small Government", "Inconsistent Reasoning", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, And Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency" and "In Praise of Contracts".)
UPDATE (2012/12/30): I forgot my older post "Socialism on the Installment Plan", which describes quite well the step by step attack on smoking, from international flights, to all flights, to smoking rooms to smoke free buildings to outdoor smoking bans and beyond.