Coping with Smoking

Laws forbidding business proprietors from permitting smoking in their offices, cinemas, aircraft, stores, etc. are now legion. But such government-mandated prohibitions ignore the rights of those who don't mind smoking as well as those who wish to live in a tolerant society.

No doubt, smokers can be annoying. They even may be harmful to those around them. One need not dispute these contentions to still be concerned with their rights.

In most cases, anti-smoking ordinances aren't limited to public places such as municipal courts. If the government confined itself to protecting the rights of nonsmokers in bona fide public areas, there would be nothing wrong with the current trend in legislation.


Instead of such a limited approach, however, government has embarked upon the full regimentation of people's choices concerning smoking. The government has decided to bully smokers, regardless of whether they violate anyone's rights or merely indulge with the consent of others.

People suffer many harms willingly. And in a society that respects individual rights this has to be accepted. Boxers, football players, nurses, doctors, and many other people expose themselves to risks of harm that comes from others' behavior. When this exposure is voluntary, in a free society it may not be interfered with. The sovereignty of persons may not be sacrificed even for the sake of their physical health.

Individuals' property rights are supposed to be protected by the Fifth Amendment. Not unless property is taken for public use — for the sake of a legitimate state activity — is it properly subject to government seizure. By treating the offices, work spaces, and lobbies of private firms as if they were public property, a grave injustice is done to the owners.

When private property comes under government control, practices may be prohibited simply because those who engage in them are in the minority or waver from preferred government policy. Members of minority groups can easily lose their sphere of autonomy.

There is no need, however, to resort to government intervention to manage the public problems engendered by smoking. There are many cases of annoying and even harmful practices that can be isolated and kept from intruding on others. And they do not involve violating anyone's right to freedom of association and private property.

The smoking issue can be handled quite simply. In my house, shop, or factory, I should be the one who decides whether there will be smoking. This is what it means to respect my individual rights. Just as I may print anything I want on my printing press, or allow anyone to say whatever he or she wants in my lecture hall, so I should be free to decide whether people may smoke on my property.

Those displeased by or who object to my decision need not come to my facilities. If the concern is great and the opportunity to work in a given place is highly valued, negotiations or contract talks can ensue in behalf of separating smokers from nonsmokers. In many cases all that's needed is to bring the problem to light. Maybe the firm's insurance costs will be inordinately high where there is smoking, or maybe a change in policy will come about because customers and workers are gradually leaving. The issue of smoking may not undermine the far greater issue of individual, including private property, rights.

In some cases a conflict about this matter may go so far as to involve tort litigation. Exposing employees to serious dangers that are not part of the job description and of which they were not warned may be actionable. But what the company does initially at least must be its decision. And the onus of proof in these cases must be on those who claim to have suffered unjustified harm.

Clearly, smoking isn't universally bad. For some people it may be O.K. to smoke, just as it could be O.K. to have a couple of drinks or to run five miles a day. For others, smoking is very harmful to their health. In either case, health may not be the highest good for many people. All things considered, even those whose health suffers may wish to smoke. In a free society, people are free to do what is wrong, so long as they don't violate the rights of others.

In a free and pluralistic society, it isn't necessary to appoint the government as the caretaker of our health and the overseer of our interpersonal negotiations concerning how we best get along with each other.





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12 Responses to “Coping with Smoking”

  • Floyd:

    This article sets the record for the WORST post ever on acting-man.
    The logic is flowed, should I say biased?
    The obvious ramifications and extensions are overlooked.

    By extension of the article logic, how about smoking weed in public, no matter the negative impact on others? How about more potent and poisoning substances?
    Market forces will fix that?

    By extension, would it be OK to smoke a cigarette with 10x potency (with a filter to protect the smoker, but no protection bystanders)?

    By extension, how about the neighborhood kids playing in the local water supply system?
    Messing it up with debris, mud and feces is just an annoying.
    You don’t like this, go live in another place.
    (Notice that in office spaces air is supplied similarly to water(!) via fans, vents, etc).

    By extension, how about a gang playing with their guns in the your town or neighborhood?
    They are just aiming at their target of will for fun, not to kill.
    The noise, collateral damage, and a rare casualty are all just annoying.
    You don’t like it, go live in another place.

    Smoking is obviously fine so long the smoker does not pollute the air consumed by others.
    How about a mask, like scuba-diver’s or astronaut’s, that seals all the smoke inside?
    Consider the added benefit that a smoker keeps all of his smoke to himself.

    In reality the laws are somewhat too coarse, as usually is the case.
    For the most part they make sense. But, in some situations they don’t, e.g. pubs in Dublin.
    To contrast, consider the ridiculous situation on airline carriers in the 80s, in which the right handside was for smokers and the left handside was for non-smokers… (too bad the smoke didn’t care).

  • The local governments property rights should end at the steps of city hall, the capital or the white house. This isn’t about health. It is about forcing us to live the way they want us to live. A century of public school brainwashing has done this to the US. There are a lot more harmful things around than smoking, like toxins created making war machines. The vast majority of people I have seen die from smoking also drank plenty of whiskey or some other drug. My grandparents smoked until cigarettes killed them almost 40 years ago at ages 84 and 82. My longest lived aunt smoked the strongest non filtered cigarettes made until she was 70. Not that they are vitamin C by any means. My guess is cigarettes are at least a distant second behind government sanctioned pharmaceuticals in causing early deaths.

  • blank man:

    People that expose others to smoke should be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Parents that smoke around their children should be charged with assault and child abuse.

  • Mark Humphrey:

    Thank you for this solid defense of ethcial individualism.

    Many people enjoy bullying those who do things they despise. Quite often, they know little about that which they despise, but denounce it anyway–citing all the superficially plausible reasons they’ve been taught never to question.

    The alleged dangers of second hand smoke are a prime instance of the triumph of herding over thinking.

  • JasonEmery:

    “No doubt, smokers can be annoying. They even may be harmful to those around them. One need not dispute these contentions to still be concerned with their rights.”

    As a libertarian, I’m sympathetic. However, I think you are bit confused. You are talking about the work place, not a private park or other private property. The ‘rights’ that we have to be concerned about are the ‘rights’ of the business owner to make a profit. If we don’t have that, we don’t have employers for very long.

    As long as ‘workers’ comp’ is the law of the land, you have absolutely no argument here. If you think ‘workers comp’ laws should be eliminated, or greatly curtailed, that must precede any discussion of smokers’ rights. Also, you seem to be implying that employers should be compelled to make special arrangements for smokers. Why not, instead, suggest that employers be encouraged to PERMIT smokers to build their own smoking lounge, at their OWN expense?

    • bubbly:

      Workplace in a private company is private space as in private property. The owner of the workplace (the company or the entrepreneur) decides what is allowed. If you were a libertarian you would understand it.

      I find the article quite well reasoned.

      • JasonEmery:

        “The owner of the workplace (the company or the entrepreneur) decides what is allowed.”

        They decide what is allowed, within the bounds of civil and criminal law. Part of civil law is the requirement to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Most people have no idea how burdensome this requirement is. It is almost impossible to get most contract work without it.

        It is going to be almost impossible to fix this, since the interests served by the existing workers’ compensation laws are so well connected.

        • bubbly:

          The author is talking about general principles (“what should be”). You are talking about specific laws.

          This is like a slave owner arguing against the idea that “slavery is wrong” by saying that it’s not wrong, because it’s legal.

        • georgew:

          If I understand your logic, you are saying that because the ruling caste has unjustly foisted workers comp on employers that it is OK for the Govt to also foist more burden on employers by restricting their freedom further (and the freedom of workers who would like to trade with them)? It is your line of reasoning that is flawed.
          We all agree worker’s comp is unjust. What Tibor was arguing is that further burden on the employers (and any workers who would otherwise like to work with them) cannot help.
          Regards, George

          • JasonEmery:

            @george-my line of reasoning is that everything must start with the assumption that businesses MUST make a profit. If you have any other starting point, you should restrict your discussion to non business matters, like smoking in private parks, or on a boat in the ocean.

            No sane business owner will ever knowingly ever hire a smoker. Why would he? He is trying to make money and smokers are a huge drain on profits. Sick time, increased health insurance premiums, increased fire risk to company property, etc.

            So, from a Libertarian perspective, yes, you could argue that a businessman should have the right to put his business at a massive disadvantage by hiring and coddling smokers. While you’re at it, why not become a huge advocate of assisted suicide?

            But remember, were talking about about SANE businessmen, the kind that want to make a profit, and lots of it. The discussion makes sense only from EU perspective, where smokers are coddled and their rights are held in higher regard than the right of a business man to make a profit.

            • georgew:

              Given that most business fail to make a profit and thus go belly up, I think you meant that people must have the ability to benefit from the fruits of this labor. This is true.
              However, restricting the choices of those acting ethically cannot be expected to benefit society, and is patently unethical.

            • worldend666:

              Before all these silly regulations came along people were perfectly happy to hire smokers so it cannot be so that it would be too expensive to do so in a reasonable and free society.

              In a laissez faire society non smokers simply avoid smoking areas or put up with it for short periods if need be. If they are really worried about catching a terminal disease they can always wear a gas mask, but we know from practice people don’t do such things so the whole issue of second hand smoke has been completely blown out of proportion by the nanny state. As always the state takes regulations to ridiculous lengths none of us would individually choose to do in isolation.

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