D. Pontoppidan, Summer Fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Oscar Wilde once said that he’d rather have an interesting vice than a boring virtue. Yet to Bill Apple, [letters, NY Times, June 13] the only viable solution to this country’s smoking problem is a “Prohibition-style tobacco ban”. People cannot be trusted to make decisions in their own interest. Smoking, he argues, is the best example of this, since the dangers of smoking are widely-known, and people still choose to smoke.
However, there is much to suggest that Bill Apple himself is merely blowing out smoke. In fact, smoking in itself is not at all proven dangerous , just as eating fast food with moderation or drinking on occasion does not make one obese or an alcoholic. The fact that some choose to smoke excessively, on the other hand, is a result of different time preferences, not of poor choice.
If we approach the problem from an economic point of view, and borrow a famous example from Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk we can imagine a farmer with five sacks of grain, and no way of selling them or buying more. There are five possible uses: as basic feed for himself, food to build strength, food for his chickens, an ingredient for making whiskey, and feed for his parrots to amuse him. If the farmer loses one sack of grain, he will simply starve the parrots, rather than reducing every activity by a fifth, since they are of less utility to him than the other four uses. His decision is not made with a view of the big picture, but considering the marginal utility of each sack of grain.
His high time preference thus values present consumption more than the long-term goal of keeping the parrots. Similarly, disenfranchised groups in particular see an affordable pleasure in smoking cigarettes, in spite of living a toilsome life. Prohibiting tobacco would only serve to further marginalize them from society.