Anti-Smoking Paternalism Infantilizes Adults

The anti-tobacco crusade says it wants to reduce smoking, but it's also interested in increasing revenue, a competing interest.


Colleges and universities are not the only institutions infantilizing young adults these days. State and local governments are, too. The latest example is the District of Columbia, which is about to raise the smoking age to 21. In doing so it will join California, Hawaii and more than 100 cities, including New York, Chicago and Cleveland.

At least those measures try to protect young people from something actually harmful—unlike the speech codes, trigger warnings and safe spaces that colleges use to protect students from ideas that might hurt their feelings. But both sorts of measures apply to people who are, legally, adults. They can vote, join the military, own firearms, even hold public office. But in large parts of the nation they can't hold a cigarette.

Many of those places also happen to be heavily Democratic, and their increasingly Puritanical approach to the Devil's weed sits in uncomfortable tension with the orthodox liberal position on other questions of personal autonomy, such as sexuality and abortion. In California, D.C., and other progressive realms, it is deemed holy writ that a woman has a right to control her own body—unless she wants to smoke. (Or at least if she wants to smoke tobacco. California and the District have legalized recreational marijuana.)

The anti-tobacco crusade emanates from two sometimes competing motives. One is to improve public health. As a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser put it last week, "This legislation will build on previous administration efforts to promote healthy and active lifestyles and improve health outcomes for District residents for years to come." In Washington, as in many other places, the notion that government should steer people toward certain lifestyles and away from others is taken as a given, and suggesting otherwise is like suggesting that rain should fall up. That's just crazy talk, man.

Governments often turn to excise taxes to discourage smoking, and frequently note that such taxes can prove particularly effective in deterring tobacco use by young people, who have limited income. Once they try tobacco taxes a few times, though, states and localities soon find themselves hooked on the revenue. Then they build up a tolerance, and find themselves hiking taxes more just to get the same effect.

However, a recent study for the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute, conducted by the Beacon Hill Institute at Boston's Suffolk University, finds that tobacco taxes often reduce rather than increase revenue. When the town of Vinton, Va., doubled its cigarette tax from 20 cents a pack to 40 cents a pack in 2014, municipal leaders expected to see a 43 percent increase in revenue. Instead, income from tobacco taxes dropped 17 percent. Other localities saw similar effects. Sometimes revenue fell, and sometimes it went up—but it went up less than officials expected it to.

This is partly because of the price elasticity of demand for cigarettes. According to a health policy brief by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a 10 percent hike in the cost of a pack of coffin nails cuts overall cigarette consumption by 4 percent, on average.

The other reason taxes bring in less revenue is that consumers aren't stupid. If the cigarette tax in Springfield doubles, smokers will just drive over to Shelbyville. They might load up on cigarettes only. Or they might make their grocery and gasoline purchases there while they're at it.

Consumers also can avoid the taxes by substituting something else for cigarettes, such as spit tobacco or nicotine gum—or vaping. Vaping provides a vastly safer method of delivering nicotine than cigarettes do— 95 percent safer, according to British health authorities, who actually encourage e-cigarette use to help wean smokers off tobacco cigarettes. As Reason's Jacob Sullum put it, "Vaping is a gateway to quitting."

Yet here in the U.S., governments mostly are treating e-cigarettes as if they were just as harmful as t-cigarettes. The anti-tobacco measures passed in D.C., like those in California and Chicago, treat vaping like smoking by banning it in public and so forth. Such measures are sometimes pitched as ways to protect children, who—as Bowser's spokesman claimed—"often become overly exposed to tobacco products at an early age."

The claim merits skepticism, given the lack of evidence that youth who would not otherwise smoke start because of vaping. It's equally plausible that youth who are inclined to try one nicotine device are more likely to try others, but that an increase in the number of delivery methods will not produce an increase in the number of users. And, in fact, while teenage vaping has been rising, teenage smoking has been dropping.

If e-cigarettes are so much better for you than t-cigarettes, then why treat them like tobacco products—especially when other nicotine devices such as patches, gum and lozenges are not treated that way? A cynic might suspect that officials fear the substitution effect: If vaping faces fewer restrictions, many cigarette smokers will switch, and perhaps even use vaping as an off-ramp to quitting. Revenue from cigarette taxes would then plunge.

That theory runs up against the drive to raise the legal age for smoking, which has the same effect. But then, nobody ever accused public policy of being consistent.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. It’s only your body to do with as you will if you do pre-approved actions. Wrongthinking still leads to wrongacting which must be banned.

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  2. If the cigarette tax in Springfield doubles, smokers will just drive over to Shelbyville.

    Sounds like Springfield’s got a discipline problem.

    1. Maybe that’s why we beat ’em in football nearly half the time.

    2. Nothing a *temporary* toll road wouldn’t fix. Nothing says, “Tough Love,” like a warm, caring toll road.

  3. OT: SOS down to 4…..n-to-trump

    1. 1) I guess

      2) Hell no

      3) Fuck no

      4) Uh, why? Maybe? But, no, probably not. No.

      1. Yeah, I would agree. No idea how Romney would do but Giuliani and Corker should not be allowed near the White House.

        1. I feel dumber every time I hear anything they have to say.

    2. I’d really like to see the candidates lined up on TV, having to give their spiels about why they’d be good SOS’s, and then at the end, Trump fires 3 of them.

      1. at the end, Trump fires 3 4 of them and leaves the office vacant.


  4. The anti-tobacco crusade says it wants to reduce smoking, but it’s also interested in increasing revenue, a competing interest.

    This sub-heading makes it sound like this is confusing. It’s not. Either way the authoritarians win: They either get more money, or they stop something from happening that they’ve deemed bad. This isn’t complicated. It’s evil, but not complicated.

    1. It’s more like this:

      1) Progressive Nanny Statists want people to quit smoking ‘for their own good’. They want the government to force you to do this in their name.

      2) State rubs it’s chin, and realizes that it can make a boatload of cash through taxing it while pretending to carry out the Progressive Agenda. They may or may not care about public health, but they always care about cash.

      3) State rolls in it’s cash Scrooge McDuck style, stops caring about issue almost entirely. States and Cities take up the mantle to get in on the action.

      4) Through multiple layers of taxation, many people capitulate to the Progressive’s and quit smoking.

      5) Government revenue goes down, tears are shed.

      6) Someone invents a much, much ‘safer’ Cigarette removing justification for Government campaign.

      7) Government calls them the same thing sans evidence, and once again rolls in cash when people switch back to more deadly cigarettes by removing any price incentive to switch and drastically reducing the supply.

      The lesson from this? The government literally does not give a shit beyond making sure you vote for them, and finding a way to make cash off your puritanical desire to lock down others behavior ‘for their own good’. Whenever you hear a politician say ‘for the children’ or ‘public health’ insert the phrase ‘I need a dollar’ and you’ll be right far more often than you’ll be wrong.

    2. It’s just they somehow expect to have it both ways at once.

      1. Or you could look at it as heads, they win, tails, they also win. Maybe raising taxes can’t simultaneously discourage smoking AND boost revenue, but it also (in theory) can’t do neither.

        1. Doesn’t New Hampshire make a ton of tax revenue from cigarettes because they have low taxes on tobacco and out-of-staters visit to stock up?

          1. I dunno anymore. Marbs are like nine bucks now. On an only sort of related note, I did get a tow truck driver to stop at that liquor store with me once. That felt very new Hampshirey.

  5. “The States can and must legislate morality.”

    -Judge William H. Pryor Jr.

    1. Fuck that shit. – Richard Pryor

  6. Fuck off, slavers. Nice article.

    1. Slavers promote an active lifestyle…

  7. I suspect that raising the tobacco age to 21 will be about as effective as the 21 drinking age was at preventing teen drinking-way more teens still drink than smoke and the kids in DC will just be able to go across the river to Virginia and stock up without paying the huge taxes either. At 18, you can do things that involve a risk of death such as joining the military or committing a capital crime-I guess that this means the Boston Marathon Bomber, who was 18 at the time, could not have a final cigarette before his execution.

    Tobacco is for progressives what pot and/or gay sex is for SoCons-they think if they just pass enough laws, people will stop doing it. Doesn’t work out that way, but you can’t fix stupid.

    1. The best part is when they charge people as an adult for being underage.

  8. Today’s Libertarian Party should take a deep breath and borrow a page from the playbook of Ghandi’s Indian Congress Party.

    Just as its members revolted against governmental control by harvesting their own sea salt, and spinning their own cotton , libertarians are at liberty to quash tobacco taxes by rolling their own cigarettes- a gesture that takes only a few well-rewarded minutes a day.

    1. Florida has a heavy tax on roll your own.

      1. Minnesota, too. A few years ago that wasn’t the case, and I used to go the RYO route. Now I just buy my coffin nails from the fine folks at Altria. Of course “Big Tobacco”‘s cut of each pack is tiny compared to what .gov takes– but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing some of my money is going to billboards and bus placards that shame me for my choices!

    2. Perhaps growing your own tobacco would work, until the gov’t dolts decide to tax/ban tobacco seeds.

    3. How does one roll their own E-Cigarette, one wonders?

      Oh…I guess I can just order my shit from Canada.

  9. Government, Protecting the children by infantilizing adults since Prohibition.

    1. Oh come on, they have to show that they are protecting “the children.” This is 100% an effect of all the white proggie douchebags moving to DC in the past 10 years. The old school democrats like Marion Barrie would have laughed this law right out the door.

  10. So, you have the right to access to abortion at any age without having to consult anyone other than your doctor but you’re not responsible enough to smoke or drink until you’re 21?

    1. This guy gets it.

    2. If we allowed more than one choice in life, we’d all be confused

    3. “Look, it’s different because black children are evil and need to be removed from society.”

      -Founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger (Not a real quote, but close enough.)

      Looking at the stats, this woman nailed her goals. It’s so successful, the left wants to expand it. You’re just looking at it through the wrong glasses.

  11. I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe the nanny statist assholes who come up with this shit are just fucking stupid. Nah, that’s not it. They’re TOP. MEN.

    1. They’re crooks plain and simple. The way it works is that public health and pharma groups (often one and the same) dole out grants to cities to get these laws passed. In return, they expect to sell more of their products (Nicorette, Chantix, patches, etc.) and e-cigs compete with these, so that’s why they are going apeshit over them.

  12. “Anti-Smoking Paternalism Infantilizes Adults”

    Isn’t there already something infantile about an adult having to go around all day sucking on a nicotine pacifier?

    1. It seems you stumbled onto Reason. I think you were looking for HuffPo.

      1. You do know you don’t have to smoke to be a libertarian, right? Objectivist, maybe, but not libertarian. Could you please point me to where in my post I supported taxing smoking or suggested it should be illegal? Your right to smoke in no way eliminates my right to point and laugh at you.

    2. “Isn’t there already something infantile about an adult having choosing to go around all day sucking on a nicotine pacifier?”

      Fixed that for you. You’re welcome. Now go and enjoy an irony Latte from your local drug purveyor. You know, the one with a Caffeine addiction.

      1. Choice, addiction, whatever. Poor assumption on your part, though, that I drink coffee as I don’t. I’m just saying that the compulsion to use a substitute nipple to suck on is infantile behavior.

        1. Trudat. I prefer real nipples.

      2. Hey, I can give up coffee any time. And the fact that it’s 1 Am and the mere mention of caffeine makes me decide to go fix a pot is entirely my own choice, since I’m the one in control!


  13. US (meaning Obama) will ban smoking in public (meaning government funded) housing nationwide:……html?_r=0

    1. No-knock tobacco raids coming soon.

  14. If they don’t like it they can “smoke” flash-bang grenades!

  15. same logic a gun control. (except for the minor detail of the constitution)
    it LOOKS like something dangerous; ban it, or tax it, or both.
    No reality needed.

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