Liberty and Cigarettes

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To political activists though to few scientists ACSH's constant warnings about smoking seem like a non-sequitur. We're opposed to regulations in so many other areas and spend so much of our time reassuring people that they aren't going to be killed by pesticide residues on broccoli or by electric and magnetic fields from power lines, some critics say, why do we wimp out and denounce smoking, making it sound as if it's very bad for you? Why are we, as some put it, "libertarian except for smoking"?

We reject this characterization. We can object to cigarette smoking without contradicting libertarian principles.

While we prefer not to "solve" any problems with taxation and regulation, we nonetheless issue warnings about smoking because smoking is a real problem, while the other "threats" noted above are not. Cigarettes, magnetic fields, and pesticide residues are alike in that libertarians do not want to regulate any of them, but one of them still stands out when it comes time to rank health risks.

As a science-oriented organization, ACSH's core philosophy is not so much opposition to regulation per se, nor adherence to property rights. We are concerned with the rational ranking of risks. While many environmental causes are indeed coercive and threaten to entangle society in a spider web of regulations, from a scientific perspective what makes those causes absurd is not that they are coercive but that they are not founded on good science. They encourage regulation over petty or non-existent risks. The loss of freedom from unnecessary regulations is just the icing on the cake from a scientific perspective, though it certainly adds urgency to our mission.

This is not to say, by the way, that we are in favor of taxing or regulating cigarettes (though we have writers and advisors of varying political persuasions). Indeed, ACSH has long criticized the mandatory warning label imposed on cigarettes by the government (primarily because the label serves to relieve the tobacco industry of the moral responsibility to issue their own detailed warning about the dangers of their product indeed, the so-called Surgeon General's warning label has served the industry very well in the courtroom, as they claim that the government warning "pre-empts" any warning that the industry might have chosen to issue). ACSH has also criticized the 1998 "Master Settlement Agreement" by which government became dependent on the tobacco money trough, rushing to add the new income to general revenues instead of using it to alleviate the public health impact of smoking.

Indeed, ACSH's only significant disagreement with most libertarians on the proper relationship of law to smoking is that ACSH contends that individuals (be they rare or plentiful) ought to have the right to sue the tobacco industry if they can make a convincing case that they developed lung cancer or any other smoking-related disease in part because they were misled (especially during the 1950s) by fraudulent industry claims that cigarettes are safe. And make no mistake about it, the industry has knowingly made such false claims for decades in a deliberate effort to keep customers who might shy away if they fully absorbed the fact that about a third of them will die from consumption of cigarettes.

Unlike any other product on the market, cigarettes kill many consumers even when properly used and are arguably more addictive than any other commonly consumed substance yet have benefited from industry efforts to make the risk data sound inconclusive. Few responsible adults are fooled any more, but teens may well be. Given all these reasons to worry about cigarettes, one might argue that far from being targeted for especially rough treatment by the law, cigarettes are getting a free ride compared to countless other products, from lawn darts to flammable pajamas, that the government has cracked down on (though ACSH still favors non-regulatory solutions to health risks when possible).

Libertarian writers such as Walter Olson and Jacob Sullum may take issue with the idea that any plaintiff can plead ignorance about smoking's dangers, but this is at most an empirical disagreement, not a difference of principle. We are all opposed to fraud, after all especially, one would hope, fraud that leads to death.

In the end, it is ACSH's hope that people will stop killing themselves and stop impairing their health by voluntarily giving up smoking, and surely there's nothing unlibertarian about that. Indeed, unless libertarians are as perverse and callous as their critics are always claiming, I hope they'll start taking the devastating impact of smoking on public health at least as seriously as they do, say, natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods (which kill far fewer people per year, by the way). Something need not be "coercive" (that is, imposed by government) to be a great source of human suffering. And all of us whether our primary interest is politics, science, or art ought to regard human suffering as a problem.

Just to clarify ACSH's position (as I interpret it), I have written what I will somewhat pretentiously call an e-monograph on the topic, entitled Libertarians, Smoking, and Insanity. I hope you'll read it and, if moved to do so, debate it amongst yourselves, perhaps even alter your application of libertarian principles as a result.

Surely the problem of smoking, which claims some four million lives around the world each year, warrants at least that much consideration though no law is forcing you to read it.