Readers of this blog are no doubt aware that I’m no fan of paternalist public health policies and the unquestioned assumption that the regulator knows the utility function of a person they’ve never met better than that person knows it themself. There’s one academic paper, however, which since I read it around a year ago has pissed me off more than almost anything else I’ve ever read. It is Katz, J.E. 2005. ‘Individual Rights Advocacy in Tobacco Control Policies: An Assessment and Recommendation.’ Tobacco Control 14: ii31–ii37.
Katz begins with some confused waffling about the philosophy of individual rights, stating that:
Three subtypes of individual rights can be distinguished: the right to life, liberty, and use of private property. The first two of these rights can be considered political rights in contrast with the more restricted right of property use; however, there is an overlap and this can lead to confusion. All three aspects of individual rights are central to ETS [Environmental Tobacco Smoke] but in different ways. It is clear that ETS interferes with an individual’s physical and mental health, and thus can be construed as violating one’s right to life. This interference occurs whether or not ETS is sanctioned by governmental or corporate policies. Another interference caused by those who smoke is that their activity (that is, creating ETS) violates the rights of others to be let alone to pursue their own interests and activities—that is, it harms their liberty. The third individual rights subtype is to use one’s own property as one wishes. This may include producing, marketing, and using a commercial product, such as tobacco. (…)
Failing to stop tobacco use in public places is a violation of the rights of non-smokers, as may be seen by the definition of rights referring to the obligation to act to help others have their rights. Hence tobacco control is a justified way to protect the individual rights of the non-smoker. Indeed, the theories of Robert Nozick, an influential Libertarian philosopher, can be readily used to justify restrictions on smoking in public places.
Katz obviously isn’t very familiar with moral philosophy. I can’t really be bothered arguing against this nonsense. Suffice it to say that harm != rights violation. It’s not this confused and/or obscurantist characterization of rights which offends me most, however.
What really grinds my gears is the horribly Machiavellian attitude taken towards individual rights language. Katz argues that it is important for tobacco control advocates to take individual rights seriously not because individual rights are something which ought to be taken seriously, but because it will further their goal of banning smoking in public places. Katz is quite clear that the rights of nonsmokers to not be exposed to secondhand smoke should be placed firmly above the rights of smokers. Katz concludes:
As a general posture, policy should be designed to be responsive to individual rights of both smokers and non-smokers, with right to life/health (that is, rights of non-smokers) having priority. Policy could be framed so that smoking would not be permitted in co-occupied places, such as offices, sidewalks, and parks, but that appropriately informed adults would, with some restrictions, still be entitled to smoke in private. A policy along these lines could serve the cause of tobacco control advocacy by reinforcing further the community’s dedication to the concept of individual rights. Especially commended to advocates is the use of the hierarchy described above (which places life and health above liberty to use property). (…)
Still greater emphasis on individual rights of non-smokers should help maintain or even accelerate progress towards smoke-free air in all public and shared private places.
So individual rights are not something tobacco control advocates need to seriously consider, but rather something to be cynically manipulated to achieve their goals of stopping me from smoking as I walk along the road. I guess I should be happy that in Katz’s utopian society I’ll be permitted – if appropriately informed, of course – to smoke in private. That’s more than some influential people at home and abroad would grant me.