Smoking Bans: Good Ol' Fashioned, Good-Intentioned Folly


Yesterday’s Strib contained an interesting little diddy via the AP pertaining to smoking bans in bars and restaurant. The story’s crux—a recently Massachussettes study suggests the smoking ban disuades teens from becoming smokers—bolsters the idea that smoking bans have largely succeeded in promoting health.

Both supporters and opponents of the ban point to various studies backing their respective positions. (Anti-ban contrarians embrace this one linking bans to an increase in drunk driving deaths.) No matter your position vis-à-vis The Ban, it seems the greatest-good/utilitarian argument is the only rhetorical tool on the proverbial toolbelt.

That in mind, we decided to examine the philosophical underpinnings of The Ban... and pick them apart. Why? Because apparently we are contrarians.

First of all: two things to consider when weighing a law’s righteousness: 1) how much coercion is being thwarted by the law and 2) how much coercion is inherent in the law's enforcement.

Implemented justly, laws enhance and protect liberty, which is to say that the coercion being thwarted outweighs the coercion being implemented. Murder is the negation one’s right to life. So it is illegal. Theft, by definition, is the plundering of one’s property. So it is illegal. What both these laws—and all sound laws—have in common is that they protect unwitting and/or helpless victims from aggressors, and thus protect liberty.

But unlike the above said laws, the smoking ban confronts no such coercion, because coercion can’t exist when all actors behave on their own accord and no fraud is at play. In other words, so long as A) the workers and patrons of bars are aware of the risks and B) they are not bound to the bars’ premises against their own will, there is no coercion to thwart. Consequently, any law that attempts to alter or restrict their behavior one way or the other will inevitably introduce more coercion into the realm than existed before, since laws necessarily entail coercion for their enforcement.

Smoking ban proponents will dismiss the above as pedantic gibberish. “You’re missing the point! We’re saving lives!”

Well, what of it?

The world is fraught with dangers, and secondhand smoke—as exaggerated as its risks may be—is sadly one of them.

But laws are designed to protect lives, not save them. Conceivably, lawmakers could concoct legislation putting citizens under virtual house-arrest when they’re not at work or buying groceries or bitching about smokers. This would eliminate much risk and no doubt save thousands of lives a year, surely more than a smoking ban. But would such legislation be ethical or prudent? Of course not. (This analogy is not to imply that fascistic lock-downs are in any way comparable to smoking bans in terms of severity, but to illustrate their shared underlying folly.)

Okay, it’s Confession Time. I personally enjoy the smoking ban. Really. I like the fact that my clothes don’t reek of smoke in the morning, and that my lungs feel clean, and that my bar-tending friends are less at-risk for lung cancer.

But my self-interest in the ban doesn’t magically render it ethical. After all, as a honkey with testicles, I presumably enjoy a number of socially-conferred advantages— but that doesn’t make institutional racism or glass ceilings any less abhorrent. Principles, as a matter of course, exist independent of self-interest. I would love to be able to steal from a bar owner’s cash register as much as I’d love to dictate his smoking policy. Who or how many benefit from my intrusion, in terms of health or monetary gain, is irrelevant. My robbery of his cash register is not vindicated just because I donate the entire loot to charity. My forcing him to ban smoking is not justified simply because I’m allegedly saving other people’s lives. It’s not my money to give away. It’s not my call to make.