Letters to the Editor

July 5, 2000
To the Editor:

    As a smoker who has long enjoyed it, I congratulate Pierre Lemieux on his analysis of the economics of smoking. Alas, he is self-consciously naive in one respect: namely, in his supposition that there is any rational public argument over smoking in the United States. As a bemused observer in New York for the past decade (which is not the worse place in the United States, as far as smoking laws are concerned), the first thing I noticed when this whole debate began in the late 1980s, was that reason was tossed out the window.

    Professor Lemieux's noble but hopeless attempt to bring logic to bear on the matter ignores the basic purpose of the public campaign: it was (and is) to end smoking, period. It was evident, from the outset, that the initiatiors of the public campaign did not have anything but this purpose in mind. It is, plain and simple, a direct violation of the individual's right to choose and the framers of the debate knew that. What they felt was simply that smoking was a sufficiently serious health risk to merit such a violation.

    Naturally, the disaster of Prohibition is still too recent for a "law" to be passed against it. But a carefully sustained psychological campaign might do it. And it is psychological—in my understanding, the purpose of the laws in airplanes, restaurants and public spaces was not about "second-hand" smoke. It was precisely geared to make a smoker feel like a "social pariah" and thereby induce him to quit. That was all there was to it.

    Why haven't smokers "fought back" and "demanded" their rights or highlighted the reasoning given in articles, like the excellent one of Professor Lemieux? Firstly, the targets of the campaign are (relatively-speaking) the poorer segments of our society. Secondly, they are too embarassed: they know their smoking causes externalities and that they are at least partly guilty of half the accusations against them.

    Smokers are not stupid. They make the calculation and take it. We are certainly aware of the health risks (yes, every smoker knows that it is not a healthy habit—and they do not need a surgeon-general's warnings to realize that; their bodies tell them soon enough).

    But I believe smokers were surprised by the campaign. One can understand that the Surgeon-General's office and other health officials should wish to push for lower smoking in the population—that is their metier. What I believe utterly surprised smokers was the literal armies of unaffected, unrelated people that signed up as foot-soldiers in this "war"—and I am not referring to opportunistic legislators.

    I have lived in many places in my life—including notoriously totalitarian places such as the Soviet Union and under African dictatorships. But I must admit I don't think I have ever come across "groupthink" as intense, as ferocious, as widespread, as unreasonable and inexplicable as the one that has come around in the United States over the smoking issue. No other issue in modern society seems to suffer from this single-mindedness. The public debate on drugs, guns, etc. and other social ills have several sides to it. The smoking debate is more like a one-sided conversation.

    So once again, let me congratulate Professor Lemieux for trying to make the smoking debate more like, well, a debate.

Goncalo Fonseca

July 18, 2000
To the Editor:

    Smoking has negative externalities that such things as skiing do not have. People skiing does not harm me, while the harm to me of people smoking consists not only of possibility causing me to develop emphysema or cancer but the certainty of harming me in one or more of the following ways depending on the circumstances: sore throat; stopped up nose; headache; objectionable smelling hair and clothes; and reducing my pleasure in eating when smokers are present.

    Is it reasonable that, while someone can be arrested for slapping me without provocation, they can with impunity cause me pain by smoking?

    The most serious cost imposed on non-smokers by smokers is killing them and/or destroying their property with the fires they start. It is true, of course, that people using other products, such as automobiles, kill people, but drivers killed by other drivers derive benefits from automobiles. Non-smokers injured by smokers derive no off-setting benefits from cigarets, pipes, and cigars.

    As was long ago pointed out, others' freedom stops at the end of my nose. A basic function of government is protecting me from being harmed by others, and the consumption in my presence of cigarets, pipes, and cigars harms me. It is not unreasonable for me to expect the government to protect my right not to forced to inhale smoke.

    Some say that the market can solve non-smokers' problems by some businesses appealing to non-smokers by not allowing smoking. I disagree. Following this logic, you could say that there is no need for laws forbidding people from assaulting you on private property, as some businesses can appeal to people who do not wish to be assaulted by not allowing it on their premises.

Dr. Carole E. Scott
Editor, B>Quest http://www.westga.edu/~bquest and
Professor of Economics (retired)
University of West Georgia