Limiting the Right to Prohibit


Recently, Mike Stenhouse, the CEO of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, published an op-ed in the Providence Journal about anti-tobacco activists — or maybe “anti-nicotine activists” would be more accurate — and their attack on new products that replace smoking:

Better something that is less harmful than more harmful. But to some, innovative new products that reduce health risks should be banned. In the tobacco and nicotine industry, the politically-correct anti-tobacco movement is advocating for the suppression of individual rights and elimination of less harmful choices, via restrictions and outright bans on products that could improve public health.

In recent years, major technological breakthroughs have made new tobacco products much safer than conventional cigarettes; yet government at all levels, and some public institutions, are seeking to block access to such products, robbing consumers of their right to healthier lifestyles, and prohibiting entrepreneurs from their right to earn a living.

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I smoked from around the age of 17 to around the age of 22, starting a couple years later than my smoking friends, and a few attempts at quitting were fruitless.  What finally worked was Nicorette gum (followed by a lengthy addiction to pink lemonade Blow Pops).  Back then Nicorette came in only flavorless squares of chewable stuff for which one’s imagination had to supply a taste.  I never researched the matter, but my understanding was that additional choices were blocked for some time out of fear that they might attract kids.

As a matter of principle, that sort of prohibitionism is inappropriate.  When somebody wants to make a product that somebody else wants to buy, the assumption should be that they are able to engage in their transaction.  The onus should be on the prohibitionists to show that the product is somehow so dangerous to the public at large that it must be regulated, and the fact that the product kinda reminds people of a different product and might, theoretically, change the market for the broader category of goods is far from sufficient.

That’s especially true when the new product is healthier than the one that’s already available.  Smoking alternatives ought to come in as many flavors and forms as are needed to draw people away from smoking.  Having gone from smoking to not, I’ll testify that the idea that people who become addicted to a flavored nicotine product that has relatively few health risks will yearn for a heavier smoke that kills the flavor of food, makes it more difficult to breathe and be active, and puts one on the path to a horrible death is (let’s just say) speculative.  Of course, some people will move from the lighter products to the less-healthy ones, but they very well may have gone straight to smoking in the absence of the gateway.

One suspects that an equilibrium will be reached, wherein only those who truly want whatever it is cigarettes uniquely provide will use cigarettes.  The likelihood is that such people are relatively few in number and far outnumbered by people who don’t particularly care for the unique attributes of cigarettes but who enjoy enough about the experience (and the drug) that they become trapped by their addiction.

The starting point shouldn’t be the assumption that anti-nicotine advocates have a right to ban all products that might maintain or even grow the nicotine industry.  If new products create new markets, then we should deal with that when it happens, making arguments relative to the specific products in question.