February 23, 2024

The case for banning smoking

In an article published this week in the Journal of Medical Ethics, two ethicists make the liberal case for banning smoking.

Liberalism has led to legalization of many practices hitherto outlawed in Western societies. But to what extent can it used to justify the restriction of certain liberties? Can it, for example, justify banning cigarettes?

Kalle Grill (University of Umea, in Sweden,) and Kristin Voight (McGill) think the answer is yes. In an article published this week in the Journal of Medical Ethics, they argue that the health benefits of banning smoking outweigh the drawbacks of restricting on personal freedom. 

According to Grill and Voight, there are numerous considerations that count strongly in favor of outlawing the sale and smoking of cigarettes:

“As far as the current generation is concerned, then, four factors speak in favour of a ban: first, very large benefits in aggregate well-being. Second, reduced inequality in well-being because the benefits accrue largely to the disadvantaged. Third, improvements in internal autonomy for those who would prefer not to smoke. Fourth, respect for the autonomy of that proportion of the smoking population who want a ban (the evidence we cited suggests that this is about a third).”

Grill and Voight consider at some length the argument that banning cigarettes would place a significant constraint on the freedom of those who wish to smoke (despite the risk of health problems). According to these two ethicists, the immense benefits for public health that come with banning cigarettes far outweigh the drawbacks of limiting the freedom of a small minority of smokers in society.

“We accept that a ban would interfere with some (reasonably) autonomous choices as well as restrict individual freedom, but these negative implications are far outweighed by the well-being gains a ban would imply for both current and future generations…

“If we consider all the people who will be born in this present century, it is hard to see how prevention of the more than one billion expected premature deaths and the substantial individual suffering that comes with it could be outweighed by respect for the choice of some present (and some future would-be) smokers and concern for the restrictions on freedom involved.”

We would be interested to hear what our readers think about this issue. Grill and Voight put forward cogent arguments, but are they sufficient to justify such extensive state paternalism? 

The case for banning smoking
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
public health