Thursday, October 14, 2004

Smoking bans and private choice

The decision of the Bracks government to ban smoking in all public buildings in Victoria, should it be enacted, can only be a good thing. Apart from saving the health of people who have not consented to breath in other peoples' smoke, we are forgetting the huge increase in patronage at many venues in Ireland and New York after smoking bans were introduced.

The health arguments and benefits are clear. What is being forgotten is that people like me, who avoid pubs and clubs unless it is absolutely necessary to attend, will be in such venues with much higher regularity should there be no smoke. To argue against such a ban on the basis of lowered profits is not only unfair to the huge numbers of barstaff who inhale this smoke on a daily basis, it is misleading to suggest their jobs will be in danger.

The more interesting debate in this issue is the extent to which governments should interfere in the private sphere. People argue that smoking is a private choice which should not be interfered with by the government. In my opinion, smoking in public is a very public choice, which should be confined as much as possible to when it truly occurs in the private sphere.

As I understand, behaviour or activity which causes negative economic consequences are called externalities. Smoking is an example of a negative externality, which imposes costs on society as a result of its occurrence. Behaviour which imposes this negative effect on others should, in my opinion, be regulated as much as possible to reduce this external effect.

Other examples of this type of regulation abound. Causing injury to pedestrians is one negative externality of speeding. We disallow that behaviour as much as possible. Playing music at 3am is another form of this 'pollution', which is regulated to remove the infringement on the rights of others.

People indeed have a right to exercise free choice, this is not the issue. However, when that choice infringes on the rights of others, by imposing this 'cost' or 'pollution' on other members of society, who have not consented to the imposition, there is, in my view, something to be said for legislating to remove this infringement if at all possible.

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