Mayor Bloomberg Vicariously Lives the Dream Through Tasmanian Smoking Ban

It seems that the real Tasmanian devil isn’t brown, hairy, or shaped like an inverted triangle — it’s actually white, cylindrical, and filled with tobacco. That’s what the Tasmanian parliament has decided, anyway, when it proposed to ban cigarette sales to people born after the year 2000 in the tiny Australian state.

Smoking is the single most important human-induced cause of suffering and death in high-income societies. In the U.S., for example, a study assessing the most important “actual” causes of death found that smoking caused 450,000 deaths in 2000 — over 18% overall. The situation is no different down under, either — as one study noted cigarette smoking is the single largest cause of death in Australia, as well.

While much public health policy has been dedicated to addressing the smoking epidemic — with some success — smoking remains a serious public health concern in Australia, where teen smoking is actually on the rise.

Tasmania’s chosen to do something about this once and for all. The proposition to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after the year 2000 will make it illegal for anyone under the age of 12, as of this year, to ever buy cigarettes in Tasmania.

While certainly bold, is it a good idea?

Opponents of smoking bans make several arguments why not.

They argue that because the ban is localized to Tasmania alone, people can easily sidestep the prohibition by purchasing cigarettes in neighboring states.

It’s also possible that banning cigarette sales will create a black market for cigarettes — creating a sort of tobacco-funded mafia, much akin to the way the Prohibition escalated organized crime in the U.S. in the early 20 century.

What’s more, it’s possible that the consumption of tobacco products may compete in people’s minds with the use of other substances that may also be harmful, like alcohol and illicit drugs. Smoking may actually, then, protect them from engaging in other harmful substances. In support of this argument, health economists have shown that high cigarette prices predict higher consumption of other substances, such as alcohol. If cigarette sales are banned, the argument goes, then the use of these other harmful substances may increase as a result.

Lastly, there’s an ethical argument against banning cigarettes. As detrimental as they are to human health, people derive a real and tangible set of goods from smoking — a sense of cool and edginess that can be socially desirable, the calm that tobacco can have on the nerves, and marginal weight loss, particularly among women. Banning cigarettes entails a certain paternalism, which implies that responsible adults simply aren’t capable of making an informed decision about smoking for themselves, and that the state can and should make that decision for them.

But these arguments are unfounded.

Implicit in the argument that people will simply buy their cigarettes outside of Tasmania is that cigarettes are a bad thing, and that they probably should be banned. This is actually an argument for why a Tasmanian ban should actually be extended well beyond the bounds of this territory alone.

The black market argument is a fair one, in principle, but there are several reasons why it doesn’t quite pan out in practice. First, the ban isn’t universal — it only applies to people who are twelve or younger as of this year. That means these young people will likely never have the chance to even try cigarettes, let alone get addicted to them. In many ways, a full out ban, then, nips this argument in the bud because it effectively eliminates the very demand that would drive a black market for cigarettes to begin with. What’s more, as above, people can buy cigarettes from surrounding districts legally, meaning they’ll be less likely to be willing to engage in illegal behavior to buy them in Tasmania.

It’s true that banning cigarettes will probably increase the demand for other substances. But on the population level, none of these other substances have had nearly the adverse impact on human health that smoking has — making that a trade that’s worth making. Moreover, the increase in the use of other substances won’t be universal across all substances. Rather, likely substitutes for smoking are those substances that are similarly “soft” and therefore less harmful — it’s not likely, for example, that rational folks will decide that because they can’t have a smoke, they’re going to go shoot some heroine, instead. Rather, it might mean an extra beer or two (not to say that that’s a great thing, either, just not as bad as other alternatives).

And lastly, the ethical argument that banning smoking infringes on the autonomy of responsible adults is strained. We enforce seatbelt use in cars, we ban texting while driving, and we have motorcycle helmet laws all for the same reason — because we know that people simply can’t know how bad the potential outcomes of their actions might be until it’s too late. Just ask a lung cancer patient who smoked two packs a day for 30 years if the cool edginess, the marginal weight loss, or the calm nerves were worth it.

Like the cartoon character for which we know it here in the U.S., Tasmania’s taken a bold step, one toward improving the health of its citizens. But its actions extend further — by proposing this cigarette ban, Tasmania has chosen to lead by example. I only hope that others follow.

This article originally appeared on the 2x2 Project: Health Beyond the Headlines.