You’ve Gone the Wrong Way, Baby

Tobacco is dirty weed. I like it.
It satisfies no normal need. I like it.
It makes you thin, it makes you lean,
It takes the hair right off your bean,
It’s the worst darn stuff I’ve ever seen.
I like it.

—Published in the Penn State Froth, 1915.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The above poem, quoted by Jacob Sullum in For Your Own Good, seems to sum up your average smoker’s attitude toward his vice: Unjustifiably, you can’t help but love the stuff.

After all, any attempt to defend smoking, chewing, dipping, and snuffing sounds suspiciously like denial. Objections that tobacco aids creativity, soothes the nerves, stifles hunger, and perks up your energy level are met, at best, with bemused pity, and more often with derisive contempt. Smokers—yes, this reviewer is among that unhealthy number—have been shoved out of buildings, subjected to rude comments at restaurants and bars, and been made the recipient of countless righteous lectures from our spouses, parents, coworkers, significant others, and even our children. (Johnny can’t read, but the schools sure teach him what’s good for everybody.) All this outrage and out-and-out incivility is viewed as justified, considering Big Tobacco’s moral turpitude. After all, what can be worse than selling death—especially to children!!

What Jacob Sullum does in For Your Own Good is puncture the righteous rhetoric that surrounds the public attack on what James I of England called “the devil’s weed.” Sullum’s book is exhaustive in its approach, starting with a history of tobacco from its first importation to Europe from the New World up to present-day “tobacco litigation.” Never venturing down the primrose path that proved to be the undoing of the American tobacco companies—denying that nicotine is addictive—he nonetheless questions the assumptions of the Koops, Kesslers, and various attorneys general that have become the basis of legal suits. For Sullum, using tobacco is a personal choice: not the most healthy choice, perhaps not even intelligent, but a choice that the government nonetheless must not forbid.

Jacob Sullum, Simon & Schuster/Free Press, 1998, 368 pages, $25

It’s not an original argument, exactly, but Sullum has given it the best airing to date. It would be simplifying things to say that his message boils down to: smoking will kill you, and if people want to do something that will kill them, let ’em—but that’s the general drift. He does discuss how tobacco litigation seems to violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution, subjecting tobacco companies to stringent regulation no other industry must comply with, and the doubts he raises about the deadliness of second hand smoke seem convincing. He agrees that smokers have in some measure brought the present regulations upon themselves by a too-calvalier attitude toward blowing their smoke about in the past, and accepts limitations on smoking in public, as long as smoking areas are set aside. Further, he nimbly skewers the indignant nannyism and emotional excesses of the antismoking lobby, something that will warm the heart of any smoker who has been hissed at in a bar by a tobacco fascist.

Sullum’s book, though, exhibits all the deficiencies of its libertarian approach. At a recent appearance in Washington, D.C., touting For Your Own Good, Sullum remarked that he hoped his arguments against the onerous regulation of smoking would stimulate a discussion of the government’s improper intrusion into another personal matter, drug use. This is the problem with libertarianism: It levels all distinction, making every “personal” choice morally equivalent.

The choice to use drugs is not the same as the choice to use tobacco, because the two agents are different in kind, because of their effect on the human body and on human reason. One cannot responsibly choose to snort cocaine or shoot up heroin; despite its deleritous effect, one can use tobacco responsibly. No one ever went cop-killing—or demonstrated other breakdowns of human reason—on a nicotine rush.

It might be said that Sullum is right for all the wrong reasons. His attack on the antismoking movement’s encroachment on personal liberty makes sense in the context of tobacco because the use of tobacco is properly a private concern. It is almost impossible to formulate a general law that protects the interests of all sides in a matter that is as heavily reliant upon personal circumstance as tobacco use; for example, laws banning smoking in public places of business rule out smoking in bars, a place where only the most virulent anti-smokers (ahem, Californians) would feel that patrons need protection. Smoking involves no crime and represents no threat to the health—well, no threat to the moral health of the body politic, anyway. It’s certainly not good for you, but it’s not a fundamentally antihuman activity such as drug use. Drug use is a different matter, because it threatens the very qualities—the use of the intellect to make free and rational choices—that define us as human. The government has a compelling interest in the approbation of drug use because government is moral, because it ought to exist to protect and foster the development of the human person and the humane qualities of society—a truth the Founders understood well. (Of course, whether present drug policy is effective in securing those ends is a different question.) The hard-libertarian approach makes government an amoral provider of services, an administrative shuffler-of-papers that has nothing to say in defense of moral truths when they are attacked by a wilful majority. Government should not regulate tobacco use because it is a private matter best left to an amicable working-out by the individual homeowner, shopkeeper, and employer—but that does not mean that government should have nothing to say about any “personal” choice.

The greatest excess of antitobacco sentiment, however, is one that Sullum’s libertarian approach is the most ill-suited to identify. Smoking, in the past few decades, has become one of America’s last sins. As the writer Fran Leibowitz noted in a recent essay, America has become a place that worships youth and vitality, where health has replaced morality. All sorts of reprehensible behavior is acceptable, all sorts of cruelties are practiced in the name of compassion, as long as we look good while we’re doing it. Anything that could harm you, or mar your attractive exterior by taking “the hair right off your bean,” as the Penn State wag put it, must be stamped out with great severity. Tobacco companies have been cast as the big bad guys in dark suits necessary for the kind of cheap and undemanding moral drama that Americans love. What lies at the heart of this attitude is that ol’ devil pride—a pride perfectly reflected in the most extreme antitobacco attitude, the one that always feels justified to wag its finger and correct those who stray, no matter how unwelcome the lecture.

It’s enough to make you need a smoke.


  • Justin Torres

    Justin Torres is a writer and attorney in New Orleans.

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