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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Martin Wolf is Smokin'

Martin Wolf takes on the powerful anti-tobacco lobby:

The absurdities of a ban on smoking, by Martin Wolf, Commentary, Financial Times: Smokers are the new lepers. One already sees them huddled in doorways. Soon the health bill now before the UK parliament will ban smoking in all workplaces in England, including pubs, restaurants and private clubs. But the government revealed ... that the ban might eventually apply to doorways and entrances of offices and public buildings, as well as to bus shelters and sports stadiums. Smokers are to be driven out into the wilderness...

As a life-long non-smoker, I wonder what is driving these assaults. Is it an attempt to improve public health, as campaigners suggest? Or do smokers serve a need every society seems to have - for a group of pariahs that all right-thinking people can condemn? I strongly suspect the latter. ...

The discovery of passive smoking has, for this reason, given the anti-tobacco lobby its success. It has overwhelmed the protests of libertarians. Riding a tide of moral indignation, the government has enacted a draconian law banning smoking even in private clubs. Now it plans to extend that ban outdoors.

So how many lives might this extension "save" (or, more precisely, prolong)? Indeed, how many lives might the ban itself save?

According to a survey published in 2003 by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ... passive smoking increases the risk of death from lung cancer by 25 per cent. This sounds dramatic. But these studies probably contain biased or inaccurate samples: some smokers may, for example, be classified as non-smokers. Moreover, the risk for non-smokers of death from lung cancer is itself only 10 per 100,000. So the increase generated by passive smoking comes to just 2.5 per 100,000.

If every non-smoker were exposed to sufficient quantities of second-hand smoke this would amount to a maximum of 1,000 deaths a year in England, ... less than 0.2 per cent of all deaths in the country. In practice, however, the ...deaths from lung cancer caused by passive smoking ... must be very much smaller than this. Many people already live in an overwhelmingly tobacco-free environment. ...

Moreover, the government's ban does not even go near to eliminating passive smoking. As for the proposed extension to open spaces, it can add nothing. The notion that people would be exposed to dangerous quantities of passive smoke in open bus shelters or the doorways of buildings seems ludicrous. It also seems next to impossible to police fairly: where do doorways stop and who decides?

These difficulties do not, as it happens, apply to the places where the most damaging forms of passive smoking occur, in homes. That is where vulnerable children are likely to be most exposed... If the UK government were engaged in a serious health endeavour, as opposed to gesture politics, it would outlaw smoking in the home. This would be perfectly feasible... Children could be encouraged to "shop" their parents. Random visits could be arranged. ...

There is a precedent, although not a happy one: Montgomery County, in Maryland, US, did ban smoking in the home a few years ago, but then retracted the ban under global ridicule. Yet why the ridicule should have won out is far from obvious. All those people who think that the risks from passive smoking justify comprehensive legislation on public places must see the still stronger case for protecting children at home. Indeed, I wonder why the UK government does not ban the noxious weed altogether... That would be in accord with policy on a range of prohibited drugs.

Note: I am opposed to any such policy. I am merely pointing out the absurdities of current plans. Harm to others is a necessary justification for government interference. But it is not sufficient. Intervention should also be both effective and carry costs proportionate to the likely gains...

One of the usual counterargument is to note that for some groups, food servers in restaurants, bartenders, my officemate in graduate school, and so on, the risks might be a lot higher than average and people shouldn't have to sacrifice their health for the opportunity to take these jobs. Since the private marketplace will not internalize these costs properly, a legislative solution is needed.

Also, it does seem that those who suffer the most harm with the least ability to avoid it, the children of smokers, are the least protected. And while I agree there is no way to effectively legislate a solution, there is still a role for government in providing education about the harmful effects of secondary smoke through public service announcements. Compared to when I was young, education has made great inroads already.

    Posted by on Thursday, June 22, 2006 at 08:07 PM in Economics, Policy, Politics, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (8)


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