That pretty succinctly sums up where I draw the line with regards the power of the state. Adults sometimes need protecting from one another, but never from themselves. A few caveats can be inserted for particular groups (e.g. the mentally ill) but the basic point stands.
But should we allow our efforts to protect children from themselves to impact on the freedom of adults?
Rumours have reached Liberal Polemic that the Department of Health is planning to consult on whether to ban packets of 10 cigarettes. The reasoning is that children are more likely to buy packets of 10 than of 20, and that packets of 10 therefore facilitate underage smoking.
The problem with this is that there are plenty of adults that buy packets of 10 cigarettes. If small packets were banned, it would reduce the freedom of adults to buy cigarettes in smaller quantities. It may even encourage them to buy more – unable to buy packets of 10, they will have to buy packets of 20 if they want any cigarettes at all. As people tend to use up the cigarettes they have, this will not only will this constrain the freedom of adults; it may even lead to worse health outcomes.
But what about the children? The legal age for smoking is anyway 16, which is fairly low (though there are moves afoot to raise it to 18). Under 16s should not be buying cigarettes at all, and I would expect purveyors of the evil weed to apply the law as diligently as off licences do (or rather, should!); if there is any doubt about a customers age, ID should be required (the ownership of the adult-rate photo-card that accompanied my train ticket was my tool of choice as a young smoker). There are of course cases where children look older than they are (as a 6’ teenager I didn’t get asked for ID very often), but the proposed response is a hammer that will crack a few adult nuts along with those of the children. The government should ensure that the law is applied rather than implementing other measures to compensate for its failure.
The final consideration might be that it is the 16 and 17 year old smokers who are being protected. They can legally buy cigarettes, but it is made more difficult in the hope of dissuading them from starting, or continuing. If so, I remain uncomfortable. If they can legally smoke, why make it harder for them? Raising surmountable (price) barriers is only quantitatively different from raising insurmountable (legal) ones; it represents moves by the State to protect adults (which, with regards to cigarette consumption, they are assumed to be) from themselves. There is an argument for taxing cigarettes, but it should be based upon the extra costs smokers incur, which are picked up by taxpayers under our welfare system; the tax on cigarettes (as on pollution), should pay for the externalities, rather than penalising those whose lifestyles we disapprove of.
I’m probably wasting my time, however. Smoking is becoming increasingly demonised by moralisers who believe they have every right to protect people from themselves. Defending smokers and their rights is never popular; they have the same status today as drinkers did a hundred years ago. They are frowned upon and thought to be showing a crass disregard for themselves, their family and society. All of this may be true, but if their behaviour is legal we should be willing to tolerate it. If it is illegal, we should stamp it out. But we should not make the lives of law-abiding citizens harder in our efforts to compensate for our inability to enforce the law.
"A packet of 5000 B&H, please."