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The Freedom to Choose: Always the Right Side of History

The Problem with Total Smoking Bans

Beryl P. Wajsman

22 April 2006

"There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

~ James Madison


French social critic Hervé Juvin's book “L'avènement du corps” (The Elevation of the Body), argues that our ability to live longer has seen the birth of a hedonism of self-preservation replacing the hedonism of self-indulgence. Its proponents fail in their arguments on historical and ethical grounds.

Some commentators have used Juvin’s work to argue that smoking rights advocates are on "the wrong side of history" because people today are prepared to do anything and submit to anything for the sake of longevity. Their arguments imply that this trend is irreversible and that societal submission to state dictate on our behaviour is acceptable in order to accommodate this new wave of "sanctimonious puritanism" as one writer phrased it.

They miss the point. The debate is not about libertines. The debate is about liberty.

The "right side" of history has always been, and will continue to be, that side that defends and expands individual freedoms. Among the most important of which is the freedom to choose. That freedom is one of the most telling barometers of any society's progress. Former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler argued that very point in his case for considering the de-criminalization of assisted suicide.

This is not the first time that North America has seen "blue laws" put into place by governments. The prohibition of alcohol for over a decade in the United States occurred only 75 years ago. Then, as now, the real reasons for the state succumbing to the "puritans" had little to do with public health and everything to do with transparently tawdry pandering to special interests to grab their votes. What was right never entered the minds of the politicians.

Governments, instead of addressing and resolving the hard political and distributive issues of the day, chose to produce law and legislation, rule and regulation, that sought to micro-manage lives "for everyone's own good" and sold this nonsense as election fodder at the next polls.

But in politics the pendulum inexorably swings, and in the American experience it swung with such a vengeance that the Republican "drys" couldn't get back into office for two decades. The same will happen to the proto-Pavlovians here. The state today is no more prepared to deal with the important issues of the public agenda that may affect vested interests than they were 75 years ago. Yesterday's teetotalers are today's Lilliputians.

Juvin did not dwell much on the central concept of freedom of choice as the ethical foundation of a free society. That is where his work fails. And this is where the anti-smoking laws fail on the scales of justice.

No one denies that non-smokers have the right to be protected from the physical intrusion that cigarettes cause, put aside the health issues which are based on very questionable science. That is the proper role of the state. To protect you from me.

It is not however ethically appropriate for the state to go further and attempt to protect me from myself. As Lord Acton wrote, "For laws to be more than merely the imposition of the will of the strong and enfranchised on the weak and disenfranchised, they must be based on the equity of just consideration."

That equity of just consideration demands the following: that the right of citizens to congregate and engage in whatever activity they chose, so long as they do not inflict harm on others, be held sacrosanct. The protection of non-smokers can easily be satisfied by regulations that order establishments such as bars and restaurants to be either smoking or non-smoking. Period. Everyone's rights are protected. The personal imperatives of private enterprise are respected. Freedom of choice triumphs.  And we are all the better for it.

To allow statocratic engineering to go further is a slippery slope that will eventually lead to governments regulating everything from obesity to sporting activities. We’ve already witnessed cases of doctors refusing to treat patients, non-smoking patients, whose lifestyles they consider inappropriate. That’s not their business. They are paid by the state to provide health care when needed. Moreover, they took the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.


One last matter needs to be briefly addressed here. The issue of health costs related to smoking. There is a specious argument being made that smokers are a burden on the health care system. In fact, the contrary is true. They pay more taxes than the average citizen and die sooner, thereby actually relieving the system. One might as well argue that skiers are a burden because so many break their legs. And they don't pay the exorbitant taxes that smokers do on cigarettes.

Smoking-ban laws are simply another attempt to create an ever-expanding role for government in our lives. These “lifestyle” laws will necessitate the hiring of thousands more bureaucrats and inspectors allowing the state to further perpetuate its own immortality. It will also increase state revenues through new fines since there will never be strict compliance. From smoking to pit bulls to wearing helmets on bicycles,   government regulation is now big business.

Yet while private sector business measures success by monetary profit; government has yet another measure...the expansion of its reach through the growth of its personnel.

Longevity has its place. But it is the quality of a life that is as important as its quantity. Hedonism as pleasure, hedonism as artistic expression will never be lost to the alfalfa-chewing, vitamin-popping botox crowd. For what we remember today, and what enriches our collective spirits, are not the axe-wielding anti-alcohol prohibitionists of the twenties and thirties marching down main street; but the writings of Hemingway, the music of Gershwin and the art of Picasso stirring us still from the blue-gray smoky haze and oft-hidden whiskey-soaked passions of that same era in which they were born.



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