May 31 is "World No Tobacco Day," an event sponsored by the World Health Organization that is devoted to reducing the use of tobacco.
While the goal is laudable, it's equally important to consider how we're reducing tobacco use. Are individuals making personal and voluntary choices to do so, or are we strengthening government to keep tobacco products out of people's hands?
A look at the World No Tobacco Day website suggests that the World Health Organization favors the latter approach of increasing the intrusion of government in our personal lives. This is little cause for celebration.
I say this as a non-smoker who prefers dining in smoke-free restaurants. But I have friends who smoke and I respect their decision to do so because it's rooted in the exercise of a basic freedom. In a large and diverse society like ours, cigarette smoking shares space with many different customs, traditions and habits.
Progress in society -- economically and otherwise -- requires that diverse people, including smokers and non-smokers, agree to interact in peaceful, civilized ways. This is accomplished by allowing citizens free choice in their actions as long as it respects similar rights of others.
Broad, government-imposed smoking bans, of the sort favored by the sponsors of World No Tobacco Day, fail us on this front in a many ways.
First, bans that apply to all indoor places uncomfortably and unsuccessfully cram the complexities of society into an ill-fitting conformity. Those negatively affected are bound to object, leading to them into antagonistic interactions with others. That's the opposite of the kind of relationships that need to flourish in civil society.
Second, comprehensive smoking bans deny the rights-based choices of smokers. Lest we non-smokers be unconcerned, we've already seen how the same mentality has produced proposals to ban whatever the current health scare happens to be, including salt and trans-fats. The right to use other products you enjoy may be the next thing that it is fashionable to frown upon.
Third, and finally, smoking bans extend their intolerance to businesses and property owners who may want to serve smokers. They don't just infringe on the rights of smokers -- they impose restrictions on free association and consensual exchange.
All told, this imposes conformity without agreement, and it is a recipe for persistent, damaging social discord. A superior approach is to seek agreement without conformity. In practice, this means agreeing to permit both smoking and non-smoking establishments to operate freely -- and leaving it to all of us to pick the one we prefer.
Toleration means respect of the implicit choice to be exposed to secondhand smoke or not. Where that choice does not exist -- in confined and public places like elevators, courthouses, and public transit -- smoking bans are sensible. But by entering a private establishment that permits smoking, we implicitly agree to be exposed to secondhand smoke.
One of the stronger and more sincere public-health arguments behind smoking bans is that smokers get ill more frequently, with public insurance (and much of private insurance) often picking up the tab. But even here, the advocates of blanket smoking bans miss the mark. The proper policy solution isn't a draconian ban, but a strike at the root of the problem: inflexible insurance markets. Simply let smokers pay higher premiums than nonsmokers -- and thus pay for their higher health care costs.
Tolerance is a critical virtue in a large, bustling, cosmopolitan culture like ours. The consequences of bad personal health habits (like heavy smoking) should not become an excuse for passing laws at odds with our basic principles. So here is the social bargain we ought to seek: Just as the rights of non-smokers should be respected, smokers should not have the preferences of others forced onto them.
Can you imagine the results if we dedicated a day to promoting that ideal around the world?
John Garen is the Gatton Endowed Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky.