Anti-Smoking Zealots May Snuff Out the Rule of Law

by Linda Gorman

ongresswoman Diana DeGette recently introduced a bill in the House to raise the legal age for cigarette smoking from 18 to 21. This will ostensibly protect our children from the horrors of cigarette smoking. Ms. DeGette and her colleagues consider 18 years old mature enough to drive, work, vote, go to war, marry, fornicate and have abortions. But heaven forbid that someone should be allowed to smoke!

It is time for reasonable people to part company with the anti-smoking zealots. What was once a sensible effort to make people aware of the dangers of cigarette smoking has mutated into a regulatory jihad threatening the very rule of law. In California people with live-in help may not smoke in their own homes. In Colorado Senator Dorothy Rupert wants police to ticket and fine any adult seen smoking in a car with children in it. In Florida Governor Lawton Chiles simply suspended the doctrine of equal protection. He decreed that tobacco companies, unlike other companies facing liability claims, can neither dispute the claim that their product caused the harm in question nor agree that consumers should be responsible for their own decisions.

When government stuck to basic functions like defending the borders and maintaining the courts, laws were applicable to all, announced in advance and limited in scope. Government officials presuming to tell people whether they could smoke in their own homes would have been told to go mind their own business. Churches, families, neighborhoods and voluntary associations buffered the individual from the state.

After four decades of deliberate maleficence, public health fascists have succeeded in corrupting the buffering institutions. They are now working on the government itself. As the buffers withered away, their functions have been assumed by a bottomless government bureaucracy.

As the present plague of sanctimonious bores demonstrates, when the state provides family income, rears children, nurses the sick and councils the distressed, government officials begin acting like national parents. Bureaucrats confuse wisdom with power and position, presume that their experiences transcend all others, and take to uttering platitudes about "The Meaning of Life." They are genuinely surprised and angry when the rest of us don’t genuflect on cue. When they also use their power to club the disobedient into submission, the rule of law ceases to exist.

Although the efforts to educate people about the hazards of cigarettes have paid off—by 1985, fully 97 percent of all Americans believed that smoking was dangerous to their health and millions of them quit—other millions of responsible adults choose to continue smoking.

Depending upon one’s genetics and the number of cigarettes smoked, one expert figures that the average smoker trades about 10 years of life and a somewhat lower level of general health for the enjoyment of his vice. These risks compare favorably with some of the other activities that current public policy both tolerates and encourages. Consider, for example, the movement to sanction homosexual sex despite the known health risks associated with it.

With the possible exception of unborn babies, smoking does not appear to physically harm anyone other than the smoker. Pregnant women who smoke 15 or more cigarettes daily do have more low-birthweight babies, and low-birthweight babies do have higher mortality rates. But according to demographer Nicholas Eberstad, "At a time when American doctors routinely and forcefully recommend against smoking during pregnancy for the good of the baby, the decision to smoke heavily during pregnancy may well be taken as a proxy for an entire locus of parental attitudes and practices that may bear upon the well-being of the infant." Certainly the fetal risk posed by a smoking mother is no higher than that posed by a mother intent on a government sanctioned abortion.

Nor does smoking cause monetary harm. The private sector recoups its costs by charging smokers higher premiums for life and health insurance. Economist W. Kip Viscusi recently confirmed previous work showing that excise taxes and early smoker deaths more than pay for any of the "social costs" imposed by smoking. This is true even if one accepts the EPA’s grossly exaggerated estimates of the costs of second-hand smoke.

A smoker chooses to indulge in an expensive habit that he knows can kill him but which poses little danger to others. The same is true of sunbathing, driving a sport utility vehicle on rugged mountain trails and mountain climbing. If you are the kind of person who thinks that smokers deserve the regulatory fury directed against them, think again. This is just the first test of how far the governing elite can go in forcing you to live the way they want. There is no guarantee that those in power will like your pursuits; and government never knows when to quit. uBy Linda Gorman

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank located in Golden, Colorado. u


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