I went to see Thank You for Smoking over the weekend, expecting to endure the usual one-sided attack on the business everyone loves to hate, Big Tobacco. I was pleasantly surprised. The film undoubtedly skewers the industry a bit (as when a tobacco executive proclaims, “We sell cigarettes. They’re cool. They’re available. And they’re addictive. Our work is almost done for us.”). It reserves a greater measure of derision, though, for the nannyish legislators who are seeking to mandate a ridiculous skull-and-crossbones label that resembles a rotting corpse.
The film’s climax occurs when the protagonist testifies before a Senate committee considering the proposed labeling law. After correctly noting that risk-benefit tradeoffs are ubiquitous and that eliminating risk would require prohibition of all sorts of utility-creating activities, the lobbyist sums things up by declaring that “It’s about liberty.” In other words, since the government is not in a position to decide whether the benefits from smoking exceed the risks entailed, it ought to (pardon the pun) butt out. Amen.
I’ve recently expressed a similar sentiment, albeit in a far less entertaining manner, in The Case Against Smoking Bans, which I just posted to SSRN. The essay rebuts the three justifications most commonly offered for sweeping smoking bans — that they (1) alleviate externalities, (2) shape individuals’ preferences in a desirable manner, and (3) reduce risks. It then sets forth an affirmative argument for a laissez-faire approach to smoking policies. Comments encouraged!