All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 2004

The WHO Global Treaty on Tobacco: A Smokescreen for More Government Control

Free Markets Harmonize Our Diverse Ideals and Desires

On May 10 the U.S. government signed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global treaty on tobacco control. While the treaty still has to be ratified by the Senate before it becomes the law of the land, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson declared at the signing: “President Bush and I look forward to working with the WHO and other member nations to implement this agreement.” Only when you actually read the “WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control” does it become clear that full implementation would involve even more government abridgments of the liberties of the American people.

Can smoking potentially cause serious health problems? Yes. Does the smoke from cigars and cigarettes often irritate nonsmokers? Yes. But the affirmative answer to these questions does not answer more fundamental questions: Should government interfere with the production, sale, and consumption of tobacco products? Is it the government’s duty to use taxpayers’ money to propagandize for nonsmoking or to use its taxing powers to manipulate the costs of smoking?

In the free society the role of government is to secure our lives, liberty, and property. It is not the responsibility of government to “re-educate” us into a “healthy lifestyle,” to prohibit or restrict our voluntary choices and interactions with others, or to protect our children from bad or undesirable influences and habits—the latter is the responsibility of parents and the voluntary associations of civil society.

A free man is at liberty to decide what he will eat, drink, read, watch, and listen to. A free man is at liberty to take risks with his money when he invests, with his career choices when he decides on an occupation, and with his life when he participates in sports that challenge his physical abilities or when he decides what pleasures of the present are worth the possibility of a shorter and less healthy life in the future. And a free man, by logical extension, is at liberty to decide to smoke and in what quantities.

Certainly other free men are equally at liberty to reason, argue, and attempt to persuade him by their own example that his choices may be less than the most desirable. But in the free society these men have no right to force him to follow their conception of better living—whether they do so as private individuals or through government.

Once we go down the path of coerced morality and decision-making, there is no logical end to it. Decades ago the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out:

A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? . . .

These fears are not merely the imaginary specters terrifying secluded doctrinaires. It is a fact that no paternal government, whether ancient or modern, ever shrank from regimenting its subjects’ minds, beliefs, and opinions. If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away.

What too many people fail to understand is that the free marketplace is the best avenue for reducing interpersonal frictions and harmonizing the diverse ideals and desires of men. In the voluntary society, people develop the custom of courtesy and polite regard for others. In the old days it was common practice for a smoker to ask others in an enclosed space whether they minded if he lighted up; and if they did, the smoker refrained from smoking or moved to another area so as not to disturb the nonsmokers.

One of the benefits of the free market is that it facilitates a plurality of likes and dislikes. A restaurateur is concerned with attracting as many customers as possible to his establishment. Thus he must be sensitive to what pleases them during a meal. His own self-interest, depending on his existing or potential clientele, will lead him to make his place of business smoking, nonsmoking, or some reasonable mixture of both. And restaurant employees in the free society, based on the owners’ choices in this matter, will make their own decisions about the environment in which they wish to work, given the wages and work conditions offered on the market.

Diverse Tastes Accommodated

These tradeoffs and diverse opportunities, while perhaps never to anyone’s complete liking, succeed in meshing society’s heterogeneous tastes, unlike a system in which one individual imposes his desires on others.

If the WHO treaty is ratified, the United States could become even more authoritarian in the campaign against smoking. The government would be expected to spend even more taxpayer money not only to dissuade people from smoking, but also to subsidize the shift of tobacco growers into other, more acceptable lines of work. The government also is expected to use tax and pricing policies even more aggressively than at present to raise the cost of tobacco.

The rationale is that the young and the poor are too easily manipulated by the tobacco manufacturers to be left without the paternalistic hand of government. Indeed, the treaty requires member governments to prohibit the manufacture of any “sweets, snacks, toys or any other object in the form of tobacco products which appeal to minors.”

Governments are urged to abolish or further restrict the tobacco companies’ right to advertise anything positive about their products, while demanding that they carry even larger labels to persuade people not to buy tobacco. Furthermore, since the United Nations’ 1966 “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” states that “it is the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” the WHO treaty insists that every member government provide medical coverage to all those afflicted with an illness assumed to be caused by tobacco.

The treaty emphasizes the need for member governments to use international organizations to control and reduce the production, transportation, and sale of tobacco products around the world. And, of course, the treaty brings into existence a new bureaucracy—“a permanent secretariat”—to coordinate the global antismoking police action.

Oh, and what is the response of the politicized antismoking lobby in the United States to the government’s signing of the WHO’s tobacco-control treaty? That it doesn’t go far enough!

  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.