Sun in a Smokeless New York City

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We're fond of the year-old New York Sun newspaper and are no fans of intrusive regulations, but when the Sun chose to chronicle how New Yorkers are coping with Mayor Bloomberg's ban on smoking in bars, it was a reminder how little perspective people have on relative risks.

"Smokers Learn Really Bad Habits in Cigarette-Free City Night Spots" was the headline last week, with the subtitle "Some Bite Their Nails; Others Just Drink More." As if those "really" bad habits weren't shocking enough, the lead paragraph told of a man who has taken up picking his cuticles. "Once inlets of sweet if slurry tranquility," rhapsodizes the article, "the city's bars have become dens of scratching, twitching, and fiddling...a collection of ugly anxieties."

The horrors of gum-chewing, table-tapping, and fingernail-biting are also detailed.

And it's all perfectly understandable that people would complain about being driven to this but none of these frustrated smokers are likely to die from it, whereas over a third of them will die from cigarette smoking. Perhaps they should be free to do so, but their freedom should not be defended through the grotesque subterfuge of pretending that fidgeting or gum-chewing wrecks anything like the social havoc that cigarettes do, to the tune of some 400,000 dead Americans per year.

It is curious the things that will turn otherwise authoritarian or politically apathetic citizens into defenders of liberty, and their haphazard choices about where to draw the line and resist says a lot about how irrational most people really are. As Ted Balaker of the Reason Foundation has observed, some people will give up a third of their income in taxes with barely a peep of protest but become incensed over a one-dollar ATM fee. Likewise, New Yorkers quietly endure regulations against dancing, merging telecommunications businesses, driving unlicensed cabs, selling pornography too close to another pornography vendor, opening bars without paying bribes to the liquor licensors, throwing newspapers in the trash, and countless other activities but mess with their potentially-lethal smokes, and they get ornery.

Imagine how much broader New Yorkers' demands for freedom would be if only everything were as addictive as nicotine hopefully without being as deadly.


May 27, 2003

If cigarettes are addictive and the associated health risks so terrible, why is it that anti-smoking groups are not advocating a tobacco prohibition?