Policy Documents

January 2006: Leave Those Poor Smokers Alone!

Joseph Bast –
January 1, 2006

A member of The Heartland Institute’s board of directors called me recently to ask why I spend time defending smokers. It’s a lost cause, he said, and it surely doesn’t win us any friends.

I know smoking is widely condemned and that banning smoking in restaurants and bars is all the rage among state and local elected officials. I know many people think they unfairly shoulder the higher health costs of smokers, hate tobacco companies, and can’t stand the smell of cigarettes. And I know my writing on this subject will irk some Heartland supporters.

I know all that ... but I still think it is important to defend smokers. Here are my reasons.

The Rights of Smokers

Forty-five million adults in the U.S.--about 21 percent of the population--choose to smoke. You probably know a few who do. You can detest their habit and support regulations that protect you from any adverse effects their smoking may have on you, but you cannot simply run rough-shod over their rights. They’re still people. They still have rights.

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

We live in a nation founded on that principle. People are free to do things both great and foolish so long as they do not conflict with an equal right held by others. That focus on individual liberty is the reason we are the most prosperous and tolerant people in human history. When we carve out exceptions to this principle, we ought to do so with great care and reluctance.

I see neither great care nor reluctance in the anti-smoking movement. Instead I see a $600 million-a-year anti-smoking industry, funded largely by taxes on tobacco products, willing to use junk science, scare tactics, lawsuit abuse, and government force to demonize a product and its users. It’s a textbook campaign for stealing the rights of a minority and making government bigger and more powerful. It should be repugnant to anyone who is a friend of freedom.

Smokers Pay for Their Habit

When calculating the “costs of smoking” it is important to remember that smokers assume the risk, which means they understand the risk to their health but decide that risk is worth taking for the enjoyment they derive from smoking. Whatever losses smokers themselves sustain are not “costs to society” that justify higher taxes or restrictions on smoking.

The 2004 average retail price of a pack of cigarettes was $3.82. The federal tax was $0.47, state tax $1.41 ... nearly half the retail price. Smokers in some states pay more in taxes on cigarettes than in state income taxes, which is a polite way of saying smokers are forced to pay twice as much in state taxes as nonsmokers.

Harvard University professor Kip Viscusi has repeatedly demonstrated that smokers paid more in excise taxes than the social costs of their habits even before the 1999 Master Settlement Agreement raised the price of a pack of cigarettes by $0.40. (All that money goes directly into state government coffers and is spent largely for the benefit of nonsmokers.) Says Viscusi, “excise taxes on cigarettes equal or exceed the medical care costs associated with smoking.”

That was back in 2001 ... before the enormous hikes in cigarette taxes of recent years. It also doesn’t take into account the politically incorrect but nevertheless undeniable fact that smokers save the rest of society by qualifying for fewer years of Social Security and private pension benefits. Smokers die, on average, six to seven years before nonsmokers.

Second-Hand Junk

The only legitimate grounds for interfering in smokers’ choices are the potentially harmful effects of second-hand smoke on nonsmokers. Anti-smoking activists say second-hand smoke contains 4,000 poisons and carcinogens, that even a tiny dose can cause severe health effects. They claim “there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke.”

This is pure junk science. The first principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. We are exposed to thousands of natural poisons and carcinogens in our diets every day, but they don’t hurt us because the exposure is too small to overcome our bodies’ natural defenses. The same is true of second-hand smoke. No victim of cancer, heart disease, etc. can “prove” his or her cancer or heart disease was caused by exposure to second-hand smoke.

Perhaps the best recent academic study of the effects of second-smoke on nonsmokers appeared in a 2003 issue of the British Medical Journal. The authors analyzed data collected by the American Cancer Society from more than 100,000 Californians from 1959 through 1997. They concluded: “The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco-related mortality,” although they do not rule out a small effect. “The association between tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.”

Various radical environmental groups and liberal advocacy groups have been warning us about the supposed risk of “getting cancer” from everything from apples and soda to coffee, chocolate, french fries, and fish ... and now second-hand smoke. Yet each year Americans are living longer and healthier lives. Cancer rates are going down, not up. Do the math, guys.

Voluntary Action Working

We don’t need more bans on smoking in public spaces because people are figuring this out on their own. In the first place, fewer people are smoking. Controlling for the tar content of cigarettes, per-capita cigarette consumption fell by three-fifths (60 percent) since 1950, according to Viscusi.

In most cities and towns, more than half the restaurants are already nonsmoking by choice, and virtually every restaurant has seats reserved for nonsmokers. A growing share have physical room dividers and ventilation systems to prevent smoke migration. Few smokers who share a home with a nonsmoker smoke indoors anymore, or at least not in rooms likely to be occupied by nonsmoking family members.

All this is working. Exposure to second-hand smoke, as measured by the amount of cotinine in the blood of nonsmokers, has fallen 68 percent for kids and 75 percent for adults from the four-year period 1988-1991 to the four-year period 1999-2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Recall that even exposure to much higher levels of second-hand smoke in the past hasn’t been plausibly associated with negative health effects ... so how likely is it that today’s much lower levels of exposure are a real public health threat? Not very.


So let’s see. Taxes are already far above any reasonable estimate of social costs of smoking, sound science doesn’t show a health risk from second-hand smoke, voluntary limits now make smoke-free restaurants and even bars widely available to nonsmokers, and exposure to second-hand smoke is rapidly diminishing. Gee, what should we do?

Friedrich Hayek once wrote, “if we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.” Surely this is a case where further coercion is not justified.

Anti-smoking lobbyists want to go one step further by banning smoking in the few places left for smokers to go to enjoy their habits: those restaurants and bars whose owners still permit smoking. I don’t blame them for wanting to do this because continuing to attack smokers is their business, and I mean that literally: They are paid to advocate smoking restrictions.

I’m not paid to defend smokers. Heartland probably loses funding every time I write on this subject. But as I see it, somebody has to stand up for the millions of American smokers who just want to be left alone. Enough already! Leave those poor smokers alone!

Joseph L. Bast (jbast@heartland.org) is president of The Heartland Institute.