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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Why Britain’s Proposed Smoking Ban Is Immoral

The British Government has become increasingly authoritarian about how individuals choose to live their lives.

Image Credit: Sarah Johnson - Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.5 DEED

The British Conservative Government is considering legislation that would ban anyone born after 2008 from buying tobacco products. This means that, in time, adults would be prohibited from buying cigarettes, among other things. A few decades from now, a 35-year-old would be allowed to buy tobacco, whereas a 34-year-old would not. 

This initiative is a part of the Conservative government’s paternalistic drive to prevent or ban people from consuming various smoking products. As Christopher Snowdon wrote in his book Killjoys, “In recent decades, government paternalism has switched its focus from public morality to public health.”

Alongside this, the government is also planning to outright ban disposable vapes under the guise of protecting young people, even though minors are already prohibited from buying vapes. 

Helping or Hurting?

Aside from being an infringement on liberty, the disposable vapes ban is particularly troublesome because it will likely lead to worse health outcomes. Though it was no doubt made with the intention of improving health, the reality is that this kind of ban pushes young people towards the more harmful choice of smoking cigarettes—which are still legal for now. If the government was serious about helping young people to stop smoking, they should embrace the free market, because the market leads to the innovation of safer alternatives such as vaping. As a report by The Institute of Economic Affairs notes, vaping has been an effective means for getting young people to stop smoking cigarettes:

Despite concerns about a ‘gateway effect’ from vaping to smoking, regular cigarette use has virtually disappeared among school children since e-cigarettes became mainstream products. The proportion of regular smokers aged between 11 and 15 has dropped from 4% to just 1% since 2012.

A Vice or a Crime?

In his 1875 essay Vices are Not Crimes, the American individualist and essayist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) challenged the concept that vices like smoking and vaping should be considered crimes and punished as such. Spooner defined vices as acts “by which a man harms himself or his property.” Crimes, he argues, are best understood as acts “by which one man harms the person or property of another.” 

According to Spooner, there is a world of difference between harming yourself and harming others. “Unlike crimes,” he wrote, “they [vices] imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property. In vices, the very essence of crime—that is, the design to injure the person or property of another—is wanting.”

While smoking and vaping may be unhealthy, the state has no right to dictate what individuals can do with their own bodies. When the government prohibits someone from making their own decisions about what they consume, it is acting unethically because it is violating their autonomy.

“Everybody wishes to be protected, in his person and property, against the aggressions of other men. But nobody wishes to be protected… against himself,” Spooner writes.

Expanding on this, Spooner argued that to prohibit individuals from pursuing their vices is to undermine the idea of a government that has the consent of the people: 

To punish men for their vices…is a sheer and utter absurdity for any government claiming to derive its power wholly from the grant of the governed…because it would be granting away their own right to seek their own happiness.

The wave of legislation prohibiting smoking is not only going to be ineffective, it is also deeply immoral. If we believe adults should have autonomy, then they must be allowed to make bad decisions without punishment from the state.

  • Jess Gill is the Communications and Social Manager for Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA) and a Hazlitt Fellow with the Foundation for Economic Education.