Sunday, May 28, 2000

Tobacco: At the Cost of Liberty

May 31 is the World No-Tobacco Day. In recent months World Bank and the World health Organisation have led an orchestrated attack on tobacco in the name of public health concerns. The following article seeks to estimate the costs of this onslaught, and finds that what is at stake is individual liberty, personal preference and responsibility. A version of this paper titled War on "Tobacco: At the Cost of Liberty" was published in The Telegraph newspaper of Calcutta, on May 28, 2000. Earlier in the month, Liberty Institute released a book, War on Tobacco: At what Cost? It has two contributions, one by Prof. Deepak Lal, and the other is by Roger Scruton.


The greatest political achievement of the 20th Century has been the empowerment of the citizen. It has been generally accepted that despite its many flaws, there is no better political instrument than democracy to enable the people to participate and decide how they should be governed.

However, in parallel to this development there have been continuous attempts to restrict people's choice in the name of preserving public morality, health, economic well being, and now the environment. Clearly it has not been easy for the ruling establishments to recognise that if people have a legitimate say in choosing their representatives, then they have all the more right to decide on their personal preferences. Particularly if in the exercise of those preferences no one else is hurt, and the person bears the cost of making that choice.

Time and again it has been seen that the cost the society has paid for the proclivity of the elite to control has far outweighed the supposed benefits. Yet, insidious attempts are made again and again endangering the political and economic freedoms that the common man has fought hard and won after many millenniums of struggles. As we enter the 21st Century, these self-proclaimed benefactors pose the greatest threat to individual freedom and wellbeing.

The growing intensity of attack on tobacco, ostensibly on grounds of public health, is but another manifestation of the insidious assault on individual preferences.

It is well known that the misguided constitutional amendment to impose prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, not only failed to curb alcohol but inevitably fuelled crime. The fate of successive governments in India also bears testimony to financial and social costs of similar policies.

In the sixties, the Indian government had the gold control law that virtually prohibited international trade. It is now open secret that this policy was singularly responsible for the growth of international smuggling. Today, those very channels created to subvert the gold regulations are being used to send in weapons and RDX explosives that are threatening political fabric of the country.

The cost of "war on drugs" launched by the United States has been rising constantly, both monetarily and socially. The prison system in the US is overflowing with alleged drug offenders. And yet with all the billions of dollars spent on this war, the promised victory is nowhere in sight. Indeed, some of the governments in Central and South America are being increasingly marginalised by the drug mafia in spite of the money and material being poured in by the US, threatening the social fabric of these societies.

Good intentions of do-gooders are never a sufficient condition for bringing about social change. The do-gooders claim to make life safe and free of risks. Only a prison may hope to provide such safety, and even that is no longer assured.

Life is about taking risks, and coming out on top. Another name for that is private enterprise. But naturally, enterprise is anathema to all control freaks.

Lets look at our own history. Drugs and alcohol have been a part of Indian culture and tradition from time immemorial. Yet, there was no evidence of any collective decay or degeneration on account of this. Nevertheless, today we are a democracy with universal adult franchise. The underlying principle being that every voter irrespective of his or her social, religious, economic or educational background possesses the basic wisdom necessary to meaningfully participate in the decision making process of the country. Yet, at the same time these do-gooders think that these very people are incompetent to decide on issues that directly affect their lives - drugs, alcohol, tobacco, lottery, foreign media.

No doubt, there will always be some people who will make a wrong choice. But the society as such undoubtedly comes out much stronger from such experiences. That is why no such control measure was every necessary in past.

International agencies like the World Health Organisation have been trying to rally support for their crusade against tobacco. Lets look at some of the other issues that are supposed to be WHO's prime focus. Lack of clean drinking water and hygienic sanitation facilities, malaria and all the other avoidable diseases continue to wreck havoc on many parts of the world, including India. But focussing on those would mean holding the one factor responsible for these - the role or lack of it played by the various governments. And of course, WHO is made up of national governments. How much more convenient, therefore, it is to hold the common man on the street, who are struggling for his basic survival, responsible for his own alleged follies.

Not surprisingly, WHO and the like are motivated by costs, particularly the costs to the state health service. But the costs and inefficiencies of the health service should lead to a call for its denationalisation, private participation and introducing competition. More importantly, the role of the state health sector is quite marginal in countries like India. A vast majority of population, rich and poor alike (unless one is well connected) prefer the private facilities and even quacks, to the humiliation and indignity offered at most government clinics.

Openness and participation have been great buzzwords at recent international jumborees in recent years. Yet, we don't see the activists and the NGOs on the streets against attempts to control people's preference for tobacco. The reason being that most of these self proclaimed representatives of the people are control freaks themselves and see the WHO as carrying the same candle. They see the WHO's attempt to control health care, and restraints on individual freedom, as a means of legitimising their own agenda for control on a whole range of issues - economic and political.

Clearly, this desire for control posses the greatest threat to individual freedom, dignity and choice in the new century. And the voice of true protest at this insidious subversion is growing around the world. Eminent personalities such as the Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman have called for an end to war on drugs. Popular movements are spreading in many parts of the world forcing the governments to go slow on that war or even consider legalising certain drugs.
It will be a real pity if under the aegis of WHO, a new "war on tobacco" is launched even as the previous one is collapsing. The ominous consequence of this new war can already be seen in increasing reports of smuggling of cigarettes across the border in to Canada from the US.
Of course, cigarette is not even main issue in India. Tobacco in the form of the humble beedi, and various forms of chewing tobacco constitute one of the most simple and perhaps only forms of pleasure that is accessible to millions in India and other developing country.

These are the very people who have had to bear the burden of failed government economic policies, and unresponsive and indifferent administrations. But thanks to our democracy, there is probably no political leader brave enough to go out and tell these people that if elected they will send out the police to sniff out tobacco from their homes. Exactly, the same reason why we see our elite talk bravely about the need for population control, but no one dares to do anything about even after a 25 years of Mrs. Indira Gandhi's ill-advised bravado. Agencies such as the WHO provide a very good cover to push for control that will other wise never receive popular mandate.
There is no denying that tobacco carries a degree of risk. But life itself is full of risks and uncertainties. Indeed, it is the attempt to lower some of the risks and overcome some of the uncertainties that contribute to improving the general quality of life. In the process giving real meaning to life.

The question, therefore, is who should to bear the cost of taking the risk? Should he be allowed to force others, who are not so inclined, to accept some of the risks on his account. In the context of tobacco, the obvious question is about passive smoking.

According to economists these are problems of externalities, particularly caused by market failures. To ensure the supply of public goods, it is argued, the regulations are necessary to induce private operators in the market to behave in a responsible manner.

It is often forgotten that people have been devising various strategies to deal with such situations for a long time. Even without going in to science of whether and to what extent passive smoking may be harmful, one can site many instances where people have devised voluntary responses to similar situations.

For instance, eateries and restaurants in India routinely publicise their "pure vegetarian" or "non-vegetarian" status, depending on the clientele they seek to attract. Many also have add-on features such as ban on alcohol or cigarettes. Depending on the nature of their passengers, many privately operated chartered bus services in Delhi, often charge extra for qualities such as smoke free rides or allowing smokers. The demand from smokers has induced some international airlines to offer special flights. The power of private negotiation best comes through reported instances where passengers sitting at the border zone of smoking and non-smoking seats in airlines have stuck monetary deals to induce a neighbouring smoker not to light up during the flight.

These illustrations of amicable settlement of private preferences over so-called public domain contrasts sharply with the performance of the public regulations. For instance, in Delhi a law was passed giving powers to wide range of government officials to arrest smokers in an attempt to restrict smoking in many designated public and private (deemed public) places. In over two years since its passage, there has been no report of any prosecution. This implies, that either the law has achieved its objective, or, more likely, that it has been so grossly violated that it is impossible for the public authorities to seriously try to prosecute a violator.

Tobacco regulations are an attempt to drag to the public domain what is essentially a private issue. With the collapse of socialism, the enormous economic costs of trying to allocate resources by bringing private property under public control has been fully exposed. A much more efficient way is to bring under private control much of what is thought to be in the public domain - privatise the public goods.

One of the biggest advantages of this approach is that one may bypass the whole issue of evaluating scientific evidence for and against tobacco. Consequently, science doesn't get politicised under the pressures of public policy making. Likewise, public policy doesn't get embroiled into scientific debates, and instead focus on ensuring maximum space to the public so that everyone can negotiate their respective preferences. That is what an open market provides.
The refusal of many public agencies and activists to explore the non-regulatory approaches to the tobacco debate actually exposes their real agenda. The need to create an environment of crisis in order to justify their regulatory controls. Clearly, the issue of public health is a fa├žade to camouflage the restrictions on freedom of choice, curbing individual preferences those regulatory controls invariably imposes.

In a dynamic and competitive economy, companies and even industries come and go. And there is no reason to shed any tear for the tobacco industry if it fails on economic reasons or because of changing consumer preference. But the orchestrated assault on tobacco national and international agencies is not just an attack on one particular industry. This is an attack on individual freedom and liberty. It is time to call the bluff before in the name of public health the world is turned in to a living hell. Clearly, the cost of the war on tobacco is too high.

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