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  • Yit Xiang Wong

A Response to Smoking – Defending Sunak’s ‘unnecessary’ policy.


Ethan wrote this emotionally charged article about the irrational virtue signalling policy of Rishi’s Sunak smoking ban. He proposes three key lines of argumentation. (1) The paternal state as a form of infringement on bodily autonomy, (2) organic change as a better alternative, (3) the peculiar age threshold argument. After commenting on Ethan’s arguments, I will introduce a simple argument that justifies the smoking ban on the grounds of the protection of bodily autonomy.

Considering his first and second argument, on one hand, Ethan argues that Sunak should not “tell people what they should and should not put into their bodies.” On the other hand, he believes that the current regulation on smoking is justified, such as a ban on smoking in bars. It is unclear why this line of reasoning is consistent – if we do value individual bodily autonomy, Ethan shouldn’t be opposed to existing regulation.

A possible response would be to argue on the point of externalities. Since people are forced to inhale second-hand smoke, this causes non-smokers a physical cost that they cannot opt out of. But notice that this is not absolved when smoking is in private spheres. Given that smoking leads to worse individual health outcomes, smokers can cause a strain on a resource-limited NHS. Therefore, the treatment of a smoker for lung cancer could very well mean that we are denying an opportunity for someone’s sick grandma to be treated.

He also tries to mount what I term a ‘threshold argument’. The example he introduces is as follows:

“Why, for instance, should in 10 years, a 25-year-old be able to smoke whilst a 24-year-old is denied the right?”

But note that this is already justified in the status quo. There is an ‘arbitrary’ 18-year-old minimum requirement to buy cigarettes. This is not contentious, even though there is no linear growth in maturity. However, there is another example we can consider. Slavery was abolished in 1834. Just because a 30-year-old person could own a slave in 1833 does not justify a 30-year-old person owning a slave in 1834. Both examples here show a simple flaw in Ethan’s argumentation – thresholds are not a good justification for what is right and what is wrong. More specifically, the shortcomings of a legal system at one time do not justify the continuation of future shortcomings.

So why is Sunak right?

There are two parts to this argument. Firstly, smoking should be banned on the grounds of protection from harm. Secondly, the initial state failure justifies the continuous selling of cigarettes for individuals currently above fourteen.

I will skip the generic argumentation on why smoking is bad since both Ethan and I agree on this. However, given that clear harm can be inflicted on an individual, why should the state have a right to intervene and implement an outright ban? I believe this is due to dominant narratives that propagate in our society.

Although cigarette packs contain graphic images, there is still a dominant ‘cool rebellious narrative’ associated with smoking. Most individuals are aware that smoking is harmful from the large-scale advertisement campaigns and school education programs that warn children about it. However, people still opt to smoke because of peer pressure and a desire to rebel. They feel left out when their entire friend group is smoking after Neon, or when they watch Season 5 of Peaky Blinders and romanticise Thomas Shelby.

This strong social pressure is what makes smoking unique. These forms of pressure hinder an individual’s ability to make the right decision for themselves, effectively undermining their freedom of choice. One’s freedom of choice is challenged to the point where they cannot make the right decision because there are so many external factors telling them to do otherwise. Given that governments cannot accurately regulate these narratives, the only reasonable solution is to implement an outright ban. This protects a unique stakeholder – people who, absent of these narratives of social pressures, would not have smoked otherwise. I think this is morally applaudable.

Well, Yit, given that you do agree that smoking is indeed bad, why not ban it outright? Why do we allow individuals who currently smoke to still do so? I think there is a different trade-off in this case. Banning smoking for individuals who are fourteen from now onwards prevents them from falling into a lifestyle dependent on cigarettes. But by implementing a blanket ban, you are forcing individuals to give up an existing lifestyle. This becomes problematic.

Since these individuals have already grown to be dependent on cigarettes, governments cannot force individuals to commit to this trade-off without proper compensation. For example, it is reasonable to deny an individual from buying a specific house because they have not formed an emotional attachment towards it. However, it would be unreasonable to evict an individual from said house post-purchase, because their existing situation is dependent on this house. The case is similar to cigarettes. As a state, we have a duty to respect this dependency unless in extreme circumstances. And while I think smoking is harmful, it has yet to warrant such an extreme measure.

At the end of the day, even though Sunak’s policy decisions and timings are questionable, it doesn’t deny the importance of this policy change for the future of British health. I believe the state has the responsibility to intervene to protect future generations from the dominant narratives propagated by society and lead lifestyles that previous smoking generations wish they could have had.

Image: Flickr/ tegas_photography



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