Newport Beach is considering
banning smoking in a variety of new places, potentially including
parks and outdoor dining areas. This is just the latest step
in a widespread war on smoking by federal, state, and local
governments—a campaign that includes massive taxes on
cigarettes, advertising bans, and endless lawsuits against
tobacco companies. This war is infecting America with a political
disease far worse than any health risk caused by smoking; it
is destroying our freedom to make our own judgments and choices.
According to the anti-smoking movement, restricting people’s freedom to
smoke is justified by the necessity of combating the “epidemic” of
smoking-related disease and death. Smoking, the anti-smoking movement says, in
effect, is a plague, whose ravages can only be combated through drastic government
But smoking is not some infectious disease that must be quarantined and destroyed
by the government. It’s a voluntary activity that every individual is free
to abstain from. And, contrary to those who regard any smoking as irrational
on its face, cigarettes are a potential value that each individual must assess
for himself. Of course, smoking can be harmful—in certain quantities, over
a certain period of time, it can be habit forming and lead to disease or death.
But many understandably regard the risks as minimal if one smokes relatively
infrequently, and they see smoking as offering definite value, such as physical
Are they right? Can it be a value to smoke cigarettes—and if so, in what
quantity? This is the sort of judgment that properly belongs to every individual,
based on his assessment of the evidence concerning smoking’s benefits and
risks, and taking into account his particular circumstances (age, family history,
etc.). If others believe the smoker is making a mistake, they are free to try
to persuade him of their viewpoint. But they should not be free to dictate his
decision. The fact that some individuals will smoke themselves into an early
grave is no more justification for banning smoking than that the existence of
alcoholics is grounds for prohibiting you from enjoying a drink at dinner.
To the extent the anti-smoking movement succeeds in wielding the power of government
coercion to impose on Americans its blanket opposition to smoking, it is entrenching
paternalism: The view that individuals are incompetent to run their own lives,
and thus require a nanny-state to control every aspect of those lives.
This state is well on its way: from trans-fat bans to bicycle helmet laws to
prohibitions on gambling, the government is increasingly abridging our freedom
on the grounds that we are not competent to make rational decisions in these
Indeed, one of the main arguments used to bolster the anti-smoking agenda is
the claim that smokers impose “social costs” on nonsmokers, such
as smoking-related medical expenses—an argument that perversely uses an
injustice created by paternalism to support its expansion. The only reason nonsmokers
today are forced to foot the medical bills of smokers is that our government
has virtually taken over the field of medicine, in order to relieve us inept
Americans of the freedom to manage our own health care, and bear the costs of
our own choices.
But contrary to paternalism, we are not congenitally irrational misfits. We are
thinking beings for whom it is both possible and necessary to rationally judge
which courses of action will serve our interests.
By employing government coercion to deprive us of the freedom to judge for ourselves
what we inhale or consume, the anti-smoking movement has become an enemy, not
an ally, in the quest for health and happiness.
Don Watkins is a writer and research specialist at the Ayn
Rand Center for Individual Rights.