Friday, April 29, 2005

Smoking Bans

Despite being vaguely supportive of our government's ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, I'm not certain that this imposition on individual liberty is justified. Frogblog happily point out that a majority of kiwis now support the ban, but that's hardly relevant -- a tyranny of the majority is a tyranny all the same.

Mind you, our right-wing MPs are spouting some ridiculous rhetoric on the subject:
I don’t smoke, so I like smoke-free environments. But I have watched the assault on smokers with a growing unease... My foreboding is based on a sense that discriminating against a group of fellow citizens just because they smoke, is morally wrong. Surely, it is no different to discriminating against people because of their race, gender, sexuality, or religion? Isn’t this the first step onto the slippery slide of apartheid?

Um, no. The individuals are still welcome everywhere, it's just their tobacco that isn't. Having said that, this response is somewhat reminiscent of that sometimes given by gay marriage opponents to rebut accusations of discrimination, you know the one: "Everyone is allowed to get married -- so long as they marry someone of the opposite sex." Even 'universal' laws can be discriminatory, if they unfairly impede a particular group's pursuit of the good life. If we want to claim that denying everybody the liberty to marry a partner of the same sex is discriminatory, then doesn't consistency require that we say the same of denying everybody the liberty to smoke in bars?

Perhaps we should concede this, but add that such "discrimination" is justified in the latter case only. Same-sex marriage harms no-one, so there's no reason to ban it. Smoking in enclosed places does harm other people, so there is at least some reason to ban it.

Is it a good enough reason? The free market argument against it seems quite strong. No-one is being forced to visit or work in a place which allows smoking. If the jobs really are hazardous, then workers' wages should reflect this, and by signing up for the job, they consent to the risks. So why intervene? Perhaps it makes for a nicer environment for the rest of us, but if it's really that big an improvement then owners have an incentive to institute their own private smoking bans.

Now, in reality the free market often fails. Perhaps that has happened in this case, in which case government intervention would be justified in order to bring about the optimal result. But proponents of the ban must explain: where, exactly, is the market failure? Have bar owners been mistaken about what would best satisfy their customers? Have the workers been misinformed about the job risks, or not adequately compensated for it? Perhaps some lack any reasonable alternatives and thus are effectively forced into accepting the hazards against their will? Some explanation is required, anyway...


  1. If we want to claim that denying everybody the liberty to marry a partner of the same sex is discriminatory, then doesn't consistency require that we say the same of denying everybody the liberty to smoke in bars?

    I think your harm principle analysis in the following paragraph is quite right, but we can also extend it to the harmfulness of the discrimination itself. Gay people are constitutively unable to fall in love with someone of the opposite sex. Thus, a ban on gay marriage means that gay people can never marry the person they love. In contrast, a smoker can just step outside to have a cigarette, and can still smoke at home. Or they can quit smoking. So the "discrimination" against smokers is quite a bit less severe than the discrimination against gay people. So the cost-benefit analysis of banning smoking (slightly harm smokers, but also reduce harm to nonsmokers) differs from that of banning gay marriage (greatly harm gay people, cause no benefit to anyone else).

    On market failures, I think there is a case to be made that bar owners have been mistaken about what will satisfy their customers. A couple weeks ago the New York Times had an article about the New York state ban on smoking in restaurants and bars saying that contrary to expectations, the ban hadn't really hurt business at bars at all. So it seems that bar owners overestimated the degree to which their customers demanded smoky bars.

  2. I don't have much in the way of philosophical arguements or whatever to offer, but I'll just throw this in for good measure and perhaps a fair arguement against the smoking ban.

    At the time it was being introduced, I read an article in the paper about the ban on smoking extending into theatres because they are considered places of work. This means that actors cannot smoke during a play while on-stage, even if the play speicifically calls for them to be smoking.

    At the time, there was quite a lot of disapointment in this, particularly relating to one play where one character spends her entire stage-time smoking, and where a lot of the dialogue is based around her smoking addiction. Disallowing the smoking in this situation is fairly idiotic, as it is impacting on being able to convey the culture that has sprung up around smoking and smoking habits.

    They also said that the theatre company had appealed a special status from the government in order to allow smoking (did you know that truck drivers, under certain conditions, are allowed to smoke within the cab of their vehicle?) on stage, but were denied.

    I wouldn't be surprised if they've already been granted it, or will be, in the future.

    Just thought I'd throw that in.

  3. Yeah, that does sound silly. The law is a blunt instrument, eh?

  4. Utilitarianism requires the government to not only protect you from others but also you from yourself. since you harming yourself is jsut another arbitrary reduction in utility (unless possibly your life had negitive utility and you killed yourself).
    this is basically a result of individuals not always making correct cost benefit decisions even when provided with all the information. Smoking is in general a case of people not properly calculating the cost benefit.

  5. The government isn't trying to ban people from smoking in private though. (And thank goodness for that. There are good utilitarian reasons to support liberty, after all, as J.S. Mill famously explained.)

  6. There are also good utilitarian reasons for not passing laws that are theoreticaly valuable but unenforcable.
    Since banning smoking outright is just not practical (rather like prohabition) the way to get to that point is to
    1) ban advertising from most places
    2) make packaging reflect the true effects
    3) ban the activity in certain places
    etc etc
    slowly usage of the product disappears or reduces to levels where it is no longer a primary concern.
    Getting the job done this way has the same effect as doing it by force but reduces the individuals ability to get a critical mass of support to oppose it.

  7. It's difficult to determine the market failure. Nobody was ever forced to work at or go to a bar or restaurant that allows smoking. I think the biggest reason for these policies is people's feelings towards smoking even if it can't hurt them. Feelings are not a proper foundation for policy.

    Utilitarianism makes sense. Logically something is right or wrong based on what it causes. However, it is not possible to objectively measure the value of consequences. What's good and bad and how good or bad it is is a matter of opinion. The best thing to do is respect the subjective valuing of the individual who is being affected. If a person is forced into a smoke bar or restaurant they might value their life more than their desire to go inside(which if they're forced might not even exist), so that person's rights are violated. If they've come in of their own free will, though you can assume they value what ever it is they went into the bar or restaurant for (drinks, food) over what ever health or lifespan will be lost from inhaling second-hand smoke.

  8. OK...
    My wife and I both love jazz and blues. The problem is that she is always triggered into an asthma attack because of the smoke at the places that have this music. They have enacted a non-smoking policy in our city now that prohibits smoking in these places. We can both go now. The problem here is that these places have closed since there are a higher number of smokers at these venues. So what has happened is that the bars closed and we can't go to them to hear jazz or blues music.

    Another example is that we have casinos in our area that we like to go to. The problem is similar to above,but we have found the days and times that fewer smokers are there and that is when we go. The smoking bans will start next year in these establishments. Will they also end up closing down becuase smokers are at a greater number than non-smokers?

    There are many pluses and minuses to any action put in place by a government. We both are non-smokers but feel that in order for a democracy to work that some personal sacrifices most be made so that things in general are not over-regulated by any government entity.


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