Put that in your pipe and smoke it!


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.

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One thought on “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

  1. Thanks for the great post David.

    I love economics and the example you used is interesting. Other points of view to consider are implied by your opening quote of Oscar Wilde, “I’d rather have an interesting vice than a boring virtue.”

    I relate this to other forms of smoking besides cigarettes.

    Cigarettes are an addiction.

    Cigars and Pipes on the other hand are a leisure product that is consumed as a reward at the end of the day, or to relax with at the end of the meal.

    Cigars and Pipes are like Dom Perignon Champagne or fine wine and Cigarettes are like cheap bum wine like Night Train or Thunderbird.

    Many observations have been made about pipe smokers living longer because they are more relaxed. In contrast, picture Hitler screaming his head off with all his hang ups. He was an avid anti-smoker.

    Einstein, known for his peaceful ways and vast intelligence, was a pipe smoker.

    It amazes me of what little intelligence, and narrow-mindedness so many people have with their attitudes that we need to be protected from ourselves and not be allowed to make our own lifestyle decisions. Perhaps people of this type of thinking are the ones that need protecting from themselves, and the rest of us only need protecting from them.

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