Monday, 7 July 2014

If The Government Cared About Its Citizens, It Would Allow Smoking In Pubs

Some Muslim men in this country are so imbued with patriarchy and suppression of women that they enforce the wearing of the burqa. In some countries things are a lot worse - this prohibition would be mild in comparison (for example, there are places in which if Muslim women get raped they are punished by being stoned to death). Most politicians in the UK would be disgusted at enforced wearing of the burqa. But while they may have no desire to enforce the burqa, UK politicians certainly enforce many other kinds of prohibition based on things they don’t like and think we shouldn’t like.

For example, politicians in this country slap extra taxes on things like alcohol, cigarettes and fatty foods, because they want to tell us how to look after our bodies more prudently. They enforce a minimum wage law because they want to tell us who we can employ and for how much. They tell us what they think are the right levels of emissions, and penalise us if we exceed those levels. They even tell us what we can and can’t advertise. Cigarette advertising has been banned in the UK for nearly 20 years now. Currently there are government talks to ban the branding on cigarette packets too.

What this shows us is that our politicians differ from their Muslim extremist counterparts only by degrees of what they think should be part of the state’s control over own lives and what we wish to do to our bodies. In some countries it is cigarette prohibitions, in others it is compulsory face-covering – but on the principle of trying to control what we do even when we are not harming others, they think along the same lines as their Muslim counterparts - that it is part of their mandate to do so.

If you're ever looking for a good analogy that captures the difference between libertarian wisdom and big-state impediments, then the aforementioned smoking example is a good one. The government imposes its market interference on us by banning advertising of cigarettes and smoking in public. Should they have done this? No, I don't think so. They have made the mistake of creating a policy by only looking at the negatives of smoking. They have forgotten that smoking has many positives - most notably, that a lot of people in the country like smoking. I am not one of those people - the smell of cigarettes and the pollution they bring are hugely disagreeable to me, and I personally benefit from the smoking ban because I never have to incur it in pubs or restaurants. However, despite that, I think the ban was unfortunate for freedom and liberty, and largely unnecessary, as the work of Nobel Prize laureate economist Ronald Coase shows us.

Coase came up with what we now refer to as 'Coasian bargaining' - which, in this context, would go roughly as follows. Some of the UK population wish to smoke, and some do not. Some pub landlords might like to make their pub smoke-free, and some would not. Coasian bargaining says that if left to their own devices people can decide better than governments what's best for them.

Suppose there's a village with two pubs - The King's Head (KH) and The Queen's Arms (QA).  The village consists of 100 regular pub customers - 65% don't smoke and 35% do. Efficient pub landlords would compete to cater to their needs - and in doing so would have to bear in mind the needs of the smokers and the non-smokers in the village. Perhaps the QA becomes a non-smoking pub and non-smokers flock there. This would create a stream of regular custom for the KH as their landlord chose to carry on allowing smoking in his pub. Suppose the QA became the busier pub due to its non-smoking policy. The KH landlord would need to incentivise more customers to come into his pub. But he has options on the table.

Perhaps he lowers his prices, or installs SKY TV, or has free pool night, or has a ‘curry and a pint for a fiver' offer every Thursday, or starts a darts team, or makes Friday a karaoke night. Alternatively, he could allow smoking but stay open an extra couple of hours. That way those QA customers who prefer to carry on drinking after 11pm even though they have to endure a smoky pub will come to the KH after the QA closes. In the meantime, in normal drinking hours, those who will endure the smoky atmosphere for the benefits of SKY TV, or pool, or karaoke will use the KH more regularly, and those who prefer clean air and no SKY TV, pool, or karaoke will use the QA more regularly.

What is great about this situation is that both customers and landlords are able to respond to supply and demand in a free market. If you would forsake SKT TV, pool and karaoke for cleaner air, you will stay at the QA. Equally if you have no regard for karaoke, but consider the smoke worth putting up with to play on the pool table, you might drink in the KH on pool nights, despite continuing being a regular in the QA on non-pool nights. If you hate smoke full stop, you'll probably be a regular in the QA and never go in the KA. Naturally, the QA could compete with the KA’s pool night custom by getting its own pool table, or it may simply continue to capitalise on the number of people that like smoke-free pubs.

Whatever happens, though, the market of supply and demand dictates that successful landlords must cater to the needs and wishes of their customers. What cannot possibly help the landlords is having a state-enforced smoking ban imposed upon them. Having this imposed on them means they can no longer be alert to the signals of smokers and non-smokers in a free market economy.

Not only does the government’s policy erode away people’s liberties in the free market, it actually is in danger of harming the people it seeks to protect most – namely victims of second hand smoke – and in particular, victims of second hand smoke that happen to be children. The irony is, the government's reckless no-smoking in pubs policy may just as easily have a worsening effect for children, particularly if (as has happened) many smokers have exchanged pub drinking for drinking and smoking at home. If you ban people from going out and smoking in the pub, then you encourage them to buy beer and fags at the supermarket, and invite their mates round and smoke in the house instead. Given that most living rooms are smaller than pubs, this would in many cases be worse for children, even more so for the ones who wouldn't have been in the pub in the first place.

What does this actually say about our politicians?
When the state tries to protect us and penalise buyers and sellers by interfering in mutually volitional transactions it has overstepped the mark. You may argue further that in being enlightened about the net harm that bad things cause us, the state acts with prohibitions commensurate with the harm caused. But that’s not the case either.

What causes more net harm in the UK, infidelity or having smoking brands on cigarette packets? Clearly infidelity causes much more harm to society – it engenders pain, heartbreak, fights, mistrust, divorces, family break-ups, parent-less children, and many other concomitant effects. Having smoking brands on cigarette packets causes vanishingly small societal harm in comparison, particularly if you bear in mind that people that smoke do so willingly, and that passive smoking causes only a vanishingly small number of deaths or illnesses in the UK. Yet infidelity is not illegal, whereas cigarette advertising is. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to make infidelity illegal – I’m just pointing out that the government’s principle of meddling in people’s daily societal affairs is not as progressive as many think, and differs from those extreme Islamic prohibitions only in degrees of nuance, not in the general principle of oppression that underpins them.

 * Photo courtesy of

Had to do a few EDIT TO ADD parts to the smoking blog, as there were a few faulty objections in response that needed addressing.


A few subsequent comments in response to one or two responses to my smoking blog….

One chap protested by insisting that "I am entitled to my basic right to health, and people smoking in public infringes on that"

Alas, there is no basic right to health in this context - it is a fantasy. What you have is a right in life not to be harmed against your will. But that kind of right is irrelevant in the issue of smoking in pubs and restaurants. Your basic right in life not to be harmed means that if, say, a man punches you to take your wallet you have a law to protect you, and a right to see him prosecuted. But you have no such rights when it comes to smoking, except in buildings you own, and in which you have a legal right to make the rules. To say "I am entitled to my basic right to health, and people smoking in public infringes on that", is to forget that you have the free choice that enables you to go to these places or stay away. That is why I gave the two pub examples the Queen's Arms and the King's Head - under a free market mechanism you would be free to drink in smoke-free pubs and smokers would be free to smoke in smokers' pubs. By saying "I am entitled to my basic right to health, and people smoking in public infringes on that" what is actually being said is that you want every pub to be consistent with your wishes - and that's just selfish and unreasonable.

But there's another problem - bars and restaurants are not public places, which is why I made the point that we are not introduced to cigarette smoke against our will - our cigarette smoke inhalation can be avoided (children are an exception - but I'm all for laws that protect children). The smoking ban is a prohibition in private spaces not public spaces - and restaurants and bars are not public places, they are private places in which the public do business. Anyone who thinks a bar or restaurant is a public place should take their own booze in there, along with some sandwiches, a salad and a picnic blanket and see how far they get. The actual effect of the smoking ban is that it encourages smokers into *more* public spaces, or worse, back to their own living rooms where their children may have greater exposure to smoke.

Next came a comment urging me to consider the increased harm caused by passive smoking.

"Given the proved harm to the health of people exposed to second hand smoke --- the harms of second-hand smoking are well documented" Quoted research "there is a statistically significant and consistent association between lung cancer risk in spouses of smokers and exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke from the spouse who smokes. The excess risk is of the order of 20% for women and 30% for men"

Fine, I'm happy to accept the risk increase - but without the data to show what the risk is to begin with, the 20% or 30% increase tells us almost nothing. I would guess that the risks to non-smokers start at an extraordinary low number. I did a bit of checking on smoking's primary cost - lung cancer - and I found that the initial probability of a non-smoker getting lung cancer is vanishingly small - it is 0.2% for men and 0.4% for women. That averages out at 0.3% - which means that for every 1000 people, there is a likelihood that 3 of them will get lung cancer (even that won't just be down to smoking - there are all sorts of other fumes around), but let's assume smoking is entirely to blame. So, although the report says the excess risk of passive smoking is of the order of 20% for women and 30% for men (let's average it to 25%), all it means is it increases the incidences from 3 people to 3.75 people per 1000 (that's not even 1 extra person in 1000). While a 25% increase sounds a lot when quoted as the researchers did - it only skews the perception when it omits the vital data - which is the original incidences - a number that is tiny.

In response to that, my correspondent responded…

"As a matter of fact, given your numbers, 0.75 people every 1000 mean that over the entire population of the UK we're talking about 50,000 more cases of cancer. Still worth trying to prevent I reckon."

I quite agree that in net terms, 50,000 people is no insignificant number. But remember, this doesn't mean that 50,000 extra people are getting lung cancer due to passive smoking; it means that anyone who, in a free society, voluntarily subjected themselves to second hand smoke in private places increases their chances of getting lung cancer by 0.3%. In a free society, everyone who goes into a smoky place considers the benefits of going in there to outweigh the slight increased risk of lung cancer.

A comment about other comparable pollutions was mentioned, which got us into other kinds of harm….

"Air pollution is a similar thing-I'd imagine the statistical influence of PM10 on the general incidence of lung cancer is provably quite small, but does that mean that we shouldn't enforce regulations to keep it under control?"

My comment is that it all depends on how the pollution is being made manifest - but yes, there are cases whereby air pollution incurs justifiable penalties. As you may know, these are called 'negative externalities' - they are costs imposed on people against their will and their control - by which we mean costs imposed outside of the transaction. In other words, an action is a negative externality to you if it’s a harm suffered that isn’t reflected in a market transaction. Something like traffic congestion is a negative externality because every car that drives into London imposes costs on the rest of the other drivers in London. Congestion charges, therefore, are penalties against negative externalities. So is air pollution from, say, a factory. But cigarettes are not, because (save for children) we are not introduced to cigarette smoke against our will - our cigarette smoke inhalation can be avoided, and people can smoke without generating negative externalities on others.

There is then the issue, which was posited, that "If it harms members of society then it harms society itself."

The trouble with this objection is that harming members of society is not an indication of harming society in aggregate terms. It's true that society knits us together so that each of our individual behaviour affects society as a whole through interconnectedness. But our connectivity is bound up in the final balance sheet, where the aggregate measurements comprise the balance sheets of all the costs and benefits. So it's true that individuals are harmed through smoking, and there is societal connectivity there, but individuals gain too, and there is connectivity there also. Saying we are interconnected is not the same as demonstrating an aggregate gain by imposing this no-smoking loss of liberty.

Take driving as an illustration to the claim that "If it harms members of society then it harms society itself". Driving does harm members of society. It causes pollution, it costs taxpayers' money, it brings about road deaths, and quite a few non-fatal accidents. If you just count costs then driving is bad. But, of course, driving has many benefits that, on aggregate, far outweigh the costs. It gives us freedom to travel, it saves us millions of hours a year in time, it gives people jobs, it enables emergency services to get to people in need, and so on. We can't just take things that 'harm members of society' and equate that to 'harming society itself', any more than a shopkeeper can take just his costs, omit his profits, and claim to be operating at a loss.

The market mechanism is there to be tailored to the needs of all concerned. The landlord wants to attract customers, both smokers and non-smokers, and to do this he (or she) must satisfy customers.

But as well, he also needs to attract staff, so he’ll need to offer better pay to compensate. Not only will customers prefer the choice of pubs - staff will too. Some staff will prefer smoke-free and standard wages, while others will prefer smokers' pubs with higher wages to compensate.

If the government left it to the individual pubs to decide on their policies, and there was a strong non-smoker resistance to second-hand smoke, then smoke-free pubs would be free to be set up, and they would attract flocks of high-paying non-smokers, and staff would queue to work there even at lower wages, with the remaining smokers' pubs satisfying smokers and staff who preferred higher wages for increased risk.