Smoking: An Issue of Freedom and Personal Responsibility

December 23, 2011

For immediate release (446 words).

Every day each of us makes choices that influence our own health: what we eat, how much we exercise, whether we take our medications. These are by nature private choices and private responsibilities.

Some health choices, however, are collective. Outdoor air quality compromised by industrial pollution or mosquito control are good examples of health issues that are by nature public choices and public responsibilities.

Where does smoking in bars lie?

In my humble opinion, no one is forced to enter a saloon; nor for all but the shortest duration is anyone compelled to work in such an establishment. Second-hand smoke in a bar is a health issue but no more of one than second-hand smoke in a tobacco shop or a private residence.

What is at stake, then, is not public health or business vitality. Those are — pardon the pun — smokescreens. Rather, personal freedom and personal responsibility are the issues. If you want to avoid second-hand smoke, good for you: Don’t go to bars and don’t work there. You are free to encourage, cajole and persuade smokers to change their behavior, plus those who choose to be around second-hand smoke.

What is being considered instead is coercion, using force and threats of state-sanctioned violence to make one group of people do what another group wants them to do. And whenever we use coercion to protect people from harms from which they can protect themselves, whenever we allow public force to replace private persuasion, we give up a little bit of freedom, defer a little bit of individual responsibility and give up some of our precious heritage of liberty and take one more step on the Road to Serfdom.

No, Indiana will not become a gulag if smoking in bars is outlawed. And no, advocates are not calling for the immediate criminalization of tobacco. Anti-tobacco legislation, however, is following the same trajectory followed a century ago with alcohol regulation that culminated in prohibition. I am reminded of my colleague Walter Williams’ story about boiling a frog. If you wanted to boil a frog, you would not throw him into a pot of boiling water — the frog would jump out. Rather, you would place him in a pot of cold water and then gently and slowly turn up the heat. Freedom is lost one regulation at a time, one government takeover of individual responsibility at a time.

Finally I have never quite understood the argument that we should pass a law because people in California or New York have passed one. Are we so insecure, so afraid of being labeled hicks, rubes, that we feel compelled to ape what our “betters” are doing?

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.


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