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Smokers' rights and the bigger threats to our civil liberties

By Rachel Connor - posted Wednesday, 21 May 2014

When I ran as the lead QLD Senate candidate for the Smokers' Rights Party in 2013 federal election, my campaign was based around three main issues, all of which I believe to be fundamental to a free society. The first is civil liberties - basically the right to do whatever you want as long as it isn't harmful to others. The second is upholding private property rights, and the third is practicing tolerance.

During my campaign, a lot of people would ask "what are the rights of smokers"? Do smokers even have rights if they choose to do something harmful to themselves, or if they harm others with secondhand smoke? What about if they litter and damage the environment, or if we have to pay for their health costs? These people often expected me to reply that smokers should be able to smoke wherever they want, whenever they want, but of course that is not true. The rights of smokers are the same as all other people - they have self-ownership, and therefore have the right to do what they like with their body, even if it's harmful. After all, who has a higher claim on a person's body than themselves? Self-ownership is a concept which I believe is at the heart of libertarianism and I would even argue underlies the entire philosophy. Smokers, just like non-smokers, should not litter or harm others, but we already have laws against doing these things. Additionally, doing any one of these things ultimately cannot change the fact that a person has self-ownership.

The most common reply I would get to this argument was "yes, sure, smoker's own themselves, but as long as we have to pay for their healthcare we should get a say in their unhealthy habits". Let's have a look at the facts. According to the government, the marginal health costs of smoking are just under half a billion dollars per year, which really is a lot of money. However, the smoking excise raises nearly $10 billion. This means smokers pay almost 20 times more in smoking excise than they cost the public health system. So if you're a smoker – thank you for subsidising my health care.


Following from this, people would ask "but what about the rights of non-smokers to breath clean air"? We can solve this issue easily by respecting private property rights. If you're a non-smoker and you invite smokers into your home, they cannot smoke unless you permit them to. More often people want to talk about bars, but the same principle applies. If you own a bar, you – not the government - should be free to decide the rules that apply on your property. Just to be clear, bars are private property, the public being able to enter does not make them public (government owned) property. If tomorrow we abolished smoking regulations, and allowed owners to decide the rules, I doubt very much that every bar would suddenly become a smoking bar, and in fact the number of non-smoking bars available was on the rise well before these laws came in. The Czech Republic is a good example of this. Despite being one of the only European Union countries without smoking regulations, many owners have voluntarily banned smoking on their premises. If we allowed owners to make the rules, this means we could have a variety of smoking and non-smoking bars. If you want clean air, you can go to a non-smoking bar. If you voluntarily enter a smoking bar, there is no violation of your rights, because you have voluntarily chosen to enter a place which allows smoking and therefore voluntarily accept the risks of that as a result. Furthermore, the science behind second hand smoke ultimately does not matter if we allow private property owners to set the rules.

People would often be shocked to find I was a non-smoker, and would question my motives. I would regularly be asked "why are you as a non-smoker standing up for the rights of smokers?" This question used to amaze me. We do not question straight people standing up for gay rights. Neither do we question Australians who stand up up for refugees. People stand up for others all the time. Without wanting to understate the importance of people standing up for these issues, today at least here in Australia, these things are easy to stand up for – in fact I suspect you would be more likely to start an argument by saying you don't support gay marriage than saying that you do. But if you truly believe in civil liberties, you cannot pick and choose which liberties you will stand up for. A true test of whether you really care about civil liberties is whether you will stand up for the freedoms of minorities, even when they are unpopular.

So why do I do this? There is a bigger problem underlying the way we treat smokers. The view that the nanny-state is acceptable or even necessary, that government is responsible for our private lifestyle choices is harmful both to our civil liberties and to raising the next generation of responsible adults. When you take away people's freedom to make bad choices, you take away any ability for them to learn from their mistakes. When you tell people that they are not responsible for their lifestyle choices, it shouldn't be surprising that people do not develop a sense of responsibility for their lives and to learn to make good life choices.

There is another problem here, one which goes beyond defending smokers, or even defending ourselves from the nanny-state. That problem is the growing attitude in our society that it is acceptable for the majority to enforce their will on the minority. We can discuss the merits of using democracy to run a country another time - but to use democracy to enforce the personal lifestyle choices of the majority onto the minority is a blatant violation of civil liberties and individual freedoms.

The idea that politicians and bureaucrats know exactly which decisions would be most beneficial for my life, and that those are exactly the same decisions that will be most beneficial for yours, is laughable. In a world with six billion people, there is bound to be a difference of opinion in what constitutes a moral life, or how to live life to the fullest. Rather than trying to find a single answer to the "best" way to live, we should tolerate diversity and realise that what is best for me, may not be best for you.

This leads us back to the reason why tolerance is so important, and why the way we treat of smokers is indicative of deeper issues that threaten our liberties. To live in a free and diverse society, we need to practice tolerance, and accept that sometimes other people will make choices that we don't fully understand or that we wouldn't personally choose for ourselves. And then we must realise that that is perfectly okay.

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This article is based on a speech given at the 2nd ALS Friedman Conference, Young Women in Politics Session, by Rachel Connor.

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About the Author

Rachel Connor is the Vice President of the Australian Students for Liberty, President of UQ Students for Liberty, and Secretary of the Human Capital Project (an NGO operating in Cambodia). She has a degree in International Studies and is currently completing a Masters of Development Economics. In 2013 she was the lead Senate candidate for the Smokers' Rights Party.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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