The paternalists come out of the closet.


In 1990 I interviewed a man named Ahron Leichtman for a story about the anti-smoking movement. At the time he was president of Citizens Against Tobacco Smoke, which had successfully lobbied for a federal law banning smoking on airplanes. "We're not trying to protect the smoker from himself," he insisted. "We're trying to protect the non-smoker from the smoker." Since then Leichtman seems to have changed his tune. He is now executive director of Citizens for a Tobacco-Free Society.

The shift from Citizens Against Tobacco Smoke to Citizens for a Tobacco-Free Society is a sign of the times. Anti-smoking activists and their government allies have always been paternalists, but lately they seem to feel less of a need to pretend that they're not. This suggests that they do not anticipate much opposition to measures aimed at achieving "a tobacco-free society."

Leichtman is not the only anti-smoker to go public with his ambitions. In late February, David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that tobacco can be viewed as a drug, a revelation that earned him front-page coverage in major newspapers. If tobacco is a drug, he reasoned, maybe the FDA should have authority over cigarettes, in which case it would have to ban them as unacceptably hazardous.

Congress is not about to let the FDA ban cigarettes, although Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) has introduced legislation that would allow the agency to regulate them. The point of Kessler's little charade, in which he was shocked—shocked—to discover that cigarettes contain nicotine, was to emphasize the addictive nature of tobacco and portray smokers as witless victims rather than independent moral agents. If smokers do not choose to smoke, but are instead chemically compelled to do so, the government is doing them a favor when it tries to stop them.

"Those smokers who are out there are addicted because of nicotine," Synar said on the March 10 Crossfire. "Tobacco is as addictive as heroin, and many Americans are hooked." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) made a similar claim on the March 9 Nightline: "A large number of smokers would like to give it up, but they can't do it because this hook has been placed on them by the tobacco industry."

This is nonsense. It may be difficult to stop smoking, but it is certainly not impossible. About as many Americans have quit smoking as currently smoke, and more than 90 percent of them gave up the habit without formal treatment. It's clear that the appeal of cigarettes goes beyond nicotine, since 50 million Americans continue to smoke despite the availability of nicotine gum and patches, even though smoking entails greater risks. That choice would be inexplicable if a nicotine fix were all that smokers wanted.

The same people who claim that smokers are nicotine slaves advocate measures designed to discourage smoking by making it more expensive and less convenient. Supporters of the Clinton administration's proposed 75-cent increase in the federal cigarette tax say it will reduce disease and death by getting smokers to quit or cut back. And they can cite research showing that price increases reduce cigarette purchases. But this means smokers are able to calculate the additional cost imposed by a tax hike, weigh it against the benefits of smoking, and modify their consumption—not the sort of behavior you'd expect from someone whose will has been stolen by the tobacco industry.

Last winter Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified in favor of Waxman's Smoke-Free Environment Act, which would ban smoking in almost all indoor locations except residences. This measure goes well beyond what most non-smokers say they want: A CNN/Time poll conducted in March found that majorities of non-smokers favor segregation rather than bans in workplaces and hotels.

Indeed, the main benefit that Browner claimed for Waxman's bill was the expected effect on smokers. "The reduction in smoker mortality due to smokers who quit, cut back, or do not start is estimated to range from 33,000 to 99,000 lives per year," she said. Six former surgeons general, reports The New York Times, "echoed the theme that this simple measure could do more for public health than any other bill in years."

Apparently, smokers are oblivious to the costs of smoking except when those costs are imposed by the government. Their addiction blinds them to the serious health risks of smoking, so they are not deterred by the prospect of lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. But if the price of a pack goes up by 75 cents, or if they have to step outside to smoke, they will decide to quit.

The problem is not that smokers are incapable of judging their own interests and acting accordingly. It's that people like Leichtman, Kessler, Synar, Waxman, and Browner don't want to let them. Since 1965, the percentage of adult Americans who smoke has dropped from about 40 percent to about 25 percent. The decline occurred mainly because of information about the health effects of smoking and changes in social attitudes. But that last 25 percent is proving stubborn, and increasingly coercive measures will be required to eliminate smoking.

"I think what we ought to hope for is that the American people go to a smoke-free society," Waxman said on Nightline, "but that's going to have to be done voluntarily." For Waxman, punitive taxes and smoking bans that tell people how to use their own property are "voluntary."

Synar, too, has little patience for individual choice. Frustrated by the refusal of so many Americans to adopt his own tastes and preferences, he declared on Crossfire that "millions of smokers haven't accepted the fact that they should give it up." The fact? The arrogance of the anti-smokers enables them to leap the is/ought gap in a single bound.