Thursday, 10 April 2014

Smoking

Last week on the radio I listened to a discussion about a government proposal to drastically limit the hours in which cigarettes could be sold and prevent cigarettes being sold in pubs. The justification was to make it harder for casual smokers to buy cigarettes. One of the supporters of the move threw out the comment that if cigarettes were invented today they would never get government approval. It got me thinking about freedom.
     There is nothing you can do that will have a more beneficial effect on your health than giving up smoking. 50% of smokers die younger of smoking related diseases. I used to smoke myself and gave up years ago. Although to be fair I was never a heavy smoker anyway. So why wouldn’t everyone give them up? Perhaps they think that they will be part of the 50% who will not die of a smoking related disease. The longest lived human Jeanne Calment smoked until she was 117. But 50:50 are not great odds.
     If people choose to do something risky that may shorten their lives aren’t they their lives? Shouldn’t it be their choice? Smoking is one of these activities. Many people engage in dangerous jobs and pastimes that could shorten their lives. Some people participate in equestrian sports or motorcycle racing or cliff diving– activities in which the chance of death and injury is high.  I don’t hear of calls for restrictions on these activities.
     So why is there such a campaign to educate smokers out of their habit? Sometimes the cost of treating smoking related diseases is mentioned. But what is never mentioned is that even people who do not smoke die eventually. And the last few weeks of their lives will cost a similar amount in hospital care to smokers. They will die at an older age on average and so will cost more for pensions than smokers. These costs are never mentioned.
     I recall hearing about a company in the late 80s or early 90s which conducted a study of the costs to its health plan of smokers and non-smokers. Surprisingly for the conductors of the study, smokers had lower healthcare costs. This was clearly not the expected result. The motivation for the study was to justify not hiring smokers. The survey did not get that result. So clearly the financial excuse does not stand up to proper financial scrutiny.
     Now it is a cash cow for governments. They can tax tobacco at high levels and justify it by saying they are trying to reduce smoking. It effect it is a very lucrative regressive tax. The do-gooders are comfortable with a tax that is especially heavy on lower income people because it is for their own good.
Another justification is the health of others. However, results of studies on health effect of secondhand smoke do not show convincing links to illnesses. The unpleasant smell on clothes and in the air is justification enough to make sure that non-smokers have smoke free indoor spaces. I fully agree with bans on smoking in certain areas.
     However, I do think that owners of restaurants and bars should be allowed to provide comfortable areas for smokers. This is often not allowed by law demonstrating that a very important secondary objective of laws to provide smoke free areas for non-smokers is to make life uncomfortable for smokers.  
Now that smoking is banned in many indoor and outdoor spaces, secondhand smoke exposure is no longer a good excuse for further restricting banning smoking. The latest idea is to ban smoking in cars with children present. It will only be a short shift to extend this ban to your own home if children are present. Now it is easy to see the emotional case for this – protect the children who have no say. But they are the children of the smokers and it is their duty as parents to bring up their children as well as they can. Perhaps smoking is the thin end of the wedge. Next thing the nanny statists will want to use the law to apply their standards of child rearing in many other areas.  While I would recommend that parents not smoke excessively in front of their children, making it the law seems excessive.
     Laws to restrict the use of illegal drugs have not worked expect for the drug dealers. They get high prices and no legal competition. But prescription medications from middle class doctors are OK, and indeed expected in many cases. It again shows that societal control is a major motivation behind the war on drugs dressed up as a health issue.
     Smoking and drug taking may shorten your life. But it is your life and if you choose to shorten it that is your choice. A number of years ago the law making suicide illegal was reversed. Shouldn’t the same principle apply to smoking? If you choose to shorten your life, it is your life and others should not intervene.

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