Why Rules on Smoking Should Get Even Tougher

Posted January 5, 2018 4:14 p.m. EST

In the 1950s, a pack of Camels could be had for as little as 25 cents in some parts of the country. But in New York City today, heavy taxes have pushed that price north of $13. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s more than a fivefold increase.

In the intervening years, we have also banned smoking in restaurants, bars and public buildings. Some jurisdictions have prohibited smoking even in outdoor public spaces. We have spent billions of dollars on media campaigns to discourage smoking.

Given the long-standing U.S. hostility to social engineering, each of these steps faced heavy pushback. When called on to justify them, regulators have offered their traditional response: Restricting individual freedom is often the only way to prevent undue harm to innocent bystanders.

The specific harm cited has almost always been well-documented health hazards caused by secondhand smoke. This rationale is similar to the one for requiring catalytic converters on cars: We need them to prevent pollution that would otherwise cause undue harm to others.

But unless you work in a crowded bar with no ventilation, the health risks from secondhand smoke are small compared with those from being a smoker. For example, more than 85 percent of American deaths from lung cancer are attributable to smoking, with fewer than one-third of the remainder linked to passive smoke exposure. Regulators may insist that their aim is not to protect smokers from themselves, but our regulations do vastly more to protect smokers (by inducing them to quit) than to protect bystanders.

In fact, smoking also harms bystanders in a more important way: Each person who becomes a smoker makes it more likely that others will become smokers as well. This additional effect outweighs the harm caused by secondhand smoke by enough to suggest that our efforts to discourage smoking, strict as they seem, may not be nearly strict enough.

Some are more sensitive than others to environmental influences. I have four adult sons, none of whom is a smoker. I once remarked to a friend that if they had grown up when I did, at least two of them would be. My son Chris, who was present during this conversation, immediately asked, “Which two?” “David (my oldest) almost certainly would have been,” I said, “and Hayden (my youngest) probably would have been, too.” I added that Jason wouldn’t have smoked no matter when he had been born. Chris seemed offended, insisting that he, too, probably would have become a smoker if he had grown up when I did.

When I started smoking at age 14 in 1959, many of my friends had already been smoking for several years. My parents didn’t want me to smoke, but as smokers themselves, they were poorly positioned to object. In those days, more than 60 percent of American men were smokers, and almost as many women. Smoking was just something that most people did.

Yet even then, people who smoked did not seem happy about it. Today, roughly 90 percent of smokers say they regret having started, and about 80 percent express a desire to quit. Some 40 to 50 percent of smokers try to quit each year, but fewer than 5 percent of them succeed. Several of my own attempts to quit failed. So I count myself fortunate to have abandoned the habit before leaving home for college.

The reason I succeeded in raising my children to be nonsmokers and my parents did not is that today’s environment is very different from the earlier one. By far the most powerful predictor of whether a person will smoke is the percentage of her closest friends who smoke. If the share of smokers in someone’s peer group rises to 30 percent from 20 percent, for example, the probability that she will smoke rises by about 25 percent. Whereas most of my teenage friends were smokers, relatively few of my sons’ friends were. In 2016, only about 19 percent of American men were smokers, and only about 14 percent of women.

Today’s environment is different mostly because of the taxes and other regulatory measures we have taken to discourage smoking. Well and good, but does anyone think that still having more than 1 smoker in 6 is a desirable population ratio?

Our stated rationale for discouraging smoking — to prevent harm caused by secondhand smoke — greatly understates the amount of harm that these actions prevent. When a regulation results in one smoker fewer, every friend of that person will have one smoker fewer in her peer group. Every member of every one of those peer groups will then become less likely to smoke. And that, in turn, will make others less likely to smoke, and so on.

Most people don’t like being regulated, but even strict libertarians concede the legitimacy of regulations to prevent undue harm to others. As John Stuart Mill memorably wrote in “On Liberty”: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

Causing someone to be more likely to smoke clearly inflicts substantial harm on that person. I have never heard even the staunchest libertarian say, “I hope my children grow up to be smokers.” Further discouraging smoking now will make it much easier to raise children to be nonsmokers.

Evidence suggests that stricter measures to discourage smoking would make even smokers themselves happier. In a 2005 study, for example, economists Jonathan Gruber and Sendhil Mullainathan found that people with a higher propensity to smoke were significantly happier in places with higher cigarette taxes. Higher taxes, they noted, made it easier for smokers to quit.

Today’s regulations to discourage smoking are strict, yes. But without violating libertarian sensibilities, we could adopt even stricter measures.