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Smokes & the State

Mises Daily: Wednesday, November 18, 1998 by

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Any settlement between "Big Tobacco" and various state governments would cement in place two destructive precedents: that government has the "right" to control virtually all that we consume and that individuals need not be held responsible for their own foolish behavior (like smoking) as long as a corporation with deep pockets can be blamed instead.

Tobacco has become the most politically incorrect of all products, but so-called public health "activists" are already targeting the beer, wine, liquor, fast food, soft drink, beef, and other industries for similar attacks. Once a tobacco "settlement" is reached only the naive would believe that the same politicians, bureaucrats, trial lawyers, and public health activists who have orchestrated the anti-smoking campaign -- and have benefitted financially from it -- will not declare a new "war" on other politically-incorrect products.

Furthermore, if it is "legitimate" for government to control what we put into our bodies, one has to wonder why it isn't even more important for government to control what goes into our minds. If we can't be trusted to consume sensibly, how can we be trusted to think the right thoughts, read the right literature, attend the right movies and plays, and vote for the right political candidates? It's an awfully slippery slope.

Smoking is an unhealthy and dangerous habit. But so are many other things; life itself is full of peril. In a free society we citizens ought to have the right to decide for ourselves which risks to take and which to avoid -- and to take full responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Children should not take up smoking, but learning about healthy lifestyles is the primary responsibility of parents, not the Nanny State, which can only undermine parental responsibility and authority.

Americans have a right to do stupid things, as our politicians demonstrate for us on a daily basis. What is at issue here is whether we wish for our government to treat us as responsible adults or as child-like wards of the ever-encroaching Nanny State.

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James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo are professors of economics at George Mason University, Va., and Loyola College, Md., respectively. Their latest book is: The Food and Drink Police: America's Nannies, Busybodies, and Petty Tyrants.

(C) copyright 1998 USA Today