Protection time

William F. Buckley
Posted: Feb 01, 2007 12:01 AM
Protection time

The hot news on the tobacco front has to do with the serendipitous finding that if damage is done to a particular part of the brain, the patient wakes up without any appetite for smoking. That is a dreamy prospect for those who wish to stop smoking, though presumably less so for those who wish to continue to smoke, never mind the consequences.

Concerning the subject, here is a pointed anecdote. A friend and, for years, a professional colleague told me some time ago that if he were sentenced to be electrocuted two weeks from now, he would instantly resume smoking. But -- I said -- I've known you for 19 years, and I've never seen you smoke! Indeed. But he had never ceased to crave smoking. That point is important as one surveys looming alternatives for the next generation.

One such was weighed in National Review a while back. The analyst was Jacob Sullum, a prominent libertarian. He was giving his views on a bulletin issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). There had been great excitement in that quarter over the possible development of anti-drug "vaccines." Such vaccines would use the human immune system to neutralize psychoactive chemicals. The ultimate aim, writes Mr. Sullum, "is to prevent drug use by taking all the fun out of it. NIDA sees the vaccines as a potential drug 'treatment' tool, which raises the possibility that they could be forced on people arrested for drug offenses as an alternative to jail."

Libertarian dogma rejects the idea, although the reasoning isn't an obvious extension of the commitment to freedom. How would giving someone convicted of a drug offense the choice of a vaccine or jail differ from giving someone convicted of fraud the choice of jail or a fine?

Laws have been enacted in various states that aim at the tobacco problem. They are confused and confusing inasmuch as they aim at two different objectives, not always clearly distinguished. Laws that prohibit smoking in public places claim legitimacy as acts of the protective arm of the law. But if the idea is to protect John from ingesting Amy's tobacco smoke, it is John who is the pivot of concern, not Amy. Why then seek this objective by prohibiting Amy to smoke, rather than by segregating Amy and her fellow smokers in one part of the establishment, where they will only contaminate each other -- unless the point is also to protect Amy from herself?

This is an example of declarative law: Tobacco is ruled a substance damaging to the body public, and just as one protects the public from robbers and con men, so the law undertakes to protect them from noxious fumes.

It would surely be wrong to require smokers to take a vaccine such as the one described by Mr. Sullum. In a free society, the desirability of a particular end is dramatized by other means, primarily taxation. The term "sin tax" logically emanates from the perception that there is something wrong with using the substance in question. Alcohol is (can be) damaging; therefore, make the acquisition of it dearer. I once upon a time listened with great interest to a sociologist who maintained that an increase of 4 percent in the cost of tobacco would reduce by 1 percent the consumption of it.

What other forces are there to be harnessed? Most obviously, health insurance. This becomes delicate because of the problem of enforceability. "Do you smoke cigarettes, ma'am? Well, then your health policy will cost you 50 percent more." And if the lady promises to stop smoking, what means do we take to monitor her habits?

This libertarian holds that Mr. Sullum is shortsighted in flatly discouraging the vaccine he writes about. If a 17-year-old were offered a vaccine that caused him to become insensible to the allure of smoking, what have we lost in a society that seeks both freedom and the scientific advantages that freedom effects in laboratories?

Speaking personally, I -- and I am certain everyone who reads these words -- would be spared terrible pain if some person we have in mind had taken such a vaccine years ago.