Vice Squad
Sunday, February 24, 2008
WHO's Tobacco Message

A couple weeks ago the World Health Organization issued a new report on the "Global Tobacco Epidemic" and what steps to implement to counter it. The toll that tobacco takes (and will continue to take in the future) on health is staggering, with more than 5 million tobacco-related deaths annually, supplemented by the threat that the tab will rise to more than 8 million by 2030. The cumulative impact over the course of the 21st century, according to the WHO, will be hundreds of millions of deaths, and (if that is not sufficient), the toll could be an attention-grabbing 1 billion tobacco-related deaths. (There are more than one billion smokers currently on planet earth.) Today, the New York Times picked up on the WHO report in a special Week in Review graphic, following an editorial earlier in the week calling for the US to submit the 2005 Tobacco Control Convention to the Senate for ratification.

The WHO offers six policies (read about them in this 19-page pdf) to try to stem the tobacco health cataclysm. My concern, of course, is that at least two of the WHO's suggested policies -- public smoking bans and high tobacco taxes -- do not meet standard Vice Squad precepts. (The higher taxes might be OK if the starting point is low.) Eventually, as I note in Chapter 3 of Regulating Vice, harm minimization (or health maximization) and vice policy robustness must always part company. Robustness accepts that there might be benefits available from vice consumption, but a strict harm minimization strategy ignores these putative benefits. There should be limits on how much an adult who chooses to smoke (or drink, or gamble, or sell/buy sex, or...) should be punished or inconvenienced, in the absence of harm to others.

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