Vice Squad
Saturday, October 04, 2003
Smoking Bans Too Restrictive

An early post on Vice Squad recounted the extent to which our vice regulations
have gone topsy-turvy in the last century, serving as a reminder that we might
expect similar revolutions in the future. In recent years, many of the alterations
have been in the direction of liberalization, especially with respect to
gambling and pornography. Tobacco regulation, however, is headed in the opposite
direction, on what appears to be nearly a global scale. Ireland, for instance, is
intending to implement a nationwide ban on smoking in workplaces come January --
no smoking in Irish pubs! The Chief Medical Officer of Britain has made a
similar proposal, while the EU is banning the use of the terms "light," "low
tar," and "mild" in cigarette names or descriptions.

There's a bit of zero tolerance to the broad workplace bans that I find disconcerting.
(For instance, the recitation that there is no known safe level of exposure to tobacco
smoke would seem to apply to sunlight, too, though it is clear that we shouldn't make
it illegal to work out of doors.) I believe that people (even adults) are not always
fully "rational"
in the usual economic sense. They might well make decisions to smoke
that "undervalue" the health interests of their future selves, and there might be a
role for public policy in helping to bolster their self-control. People might also
make choices to work in smoke-heavy environments in a manner that departs from full
rationality, and again, some regulation might be appropriate. But in general, that
regulation should not rise to the level of prohibition. The goal should be to aid
those with self-control or irrationality problems without imposing significant costs
on those whose decisions are not similarly suspect. (This conclusion is not mine alone
- recently, there has been a wellspring of research aimed in this general direction.
Here's a PDF version of one contribution, "Regulation for Conservatives...," by some
heavy hitters in the behavioral economics world.) Prohibition is too imposing upon
those whose decisions to work in less-than-smoke-free environments are fully considered.

There is considerable controversy over the health impact of environmental
tobacco smoke. The general principle enunciated above, however, and the conclusion that
prohibition is too stringent a regulation, survives even if the worst-case scenario is

Incidentally, the large decline in smoking prevalence in the US and many other
countries in recent decades should be encouraging news for opponents of the War
on Drugs. The nicotine case shows that dangerous drug usage can be significantly
curtailed without criminalizing adult possession, purchase, or sale. By and large,
we have seen much larger declines in nicotine consumption than in the usage of
illicit drugs, without resorting to throwing additional hundreds of thousands of
nicotine consumers in prison. (Similarly, we have seen much larger increases in
the prices of cigarettes than of illegal drugs in the last few years.) We have
been less successful at reducing nicotine use by teenagers, but as I suggested
before, that has only recently become a significant priority. (When I was a
teenager, my high school had its designated smoking area; I suspect that these
sorts of accommodations have largely been relegated to the ashtray of history.)

On Wednesday I praised the British Sunday newspaper the Observer for its vice coverage;
today I would like to extend the praise to its sister daily publication, the Guardian. Here is
a link
to the Guardian's webpage dealing with tobacco policy.

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