Jun 28, 2011

This Just In: Cigarettes Are Addictive

Just in time for summer are the FDA’s new cigarette rules, specifically these totally rad image warnings to go into effect later this year in September. Ah, the nanny-state.

Here’s what we all need to tell the FDA: get off my dick.

Now that I’ve made an acerbic remark, it’s time to soften that with some token to-be-sures.

I despise smoking. It is a disgusting, unhealthy act. I’ve never smoked anything and probably never will. It’s possible that I may someday try marijuana, but that day has not come yet and I don’t ever plan to even "try" tobacco.

About five years ago a close friend of mine started smoking, so I’ve got second-hand knowledge of the habit and effects. I see the futility of it all — the pointless exercise of fighting cravings with something even they admit long ago lost its appeal. And I’ve watched time and time again failed attempts to quit.

So I understand the sentiment behind a lot of these bans and taxes and campaigns. I understand that they just want to cure a societal ill as they see it, and perhaps it is best described as such.

But freedom means the right to be stupid.

Said friend has told me that banning it would be the best way to get him to quit. It would become difficult enough, in his mind, that he’d have to find something else and all would be better. But isn’t that simply outsourcing willpower? Because he lacks the necessary strength to overcome the chemical, physical, mental, and whatever addiction, fixation, etc., he would have us, nay enslave us, to be his personal nanny. To slap his hand, grind out the butt with our collective boot heel, and say "No, no, no!" as we wag our finger discouragingly. Maybe it would be as effective as he thinks, but isn’t that still basically an insidious positive right?

So often banning is the knee-jerk reaction to problems. It sounds good at first, feels good when you’re ranting, and makes for excellent and pithy sound-bites. But it collapses completely under even the simplest of questioning.

  • How would this ban be enforced?
  • Who will enforce it?
  • How effective would it actually be?
  • How do we measure its effectiveness once enacted?
  • How severe should the punishments for breaking said ban be?
  • How will those punishments be determined?
  • Who will determine those punishments?
  • How often will the whole process be reviewed, updated, etc.?
  • How much would all of this cost?
  • What are the unintended consequences?

And those questions completely ignore the huge issue with the morality of forcing us to be nannies (which, naturally, libertarians are principally opposed). It also ignores the teachings of history such as how well drug/chemical bans have fared in the past.

A ban-advocate might think that some of those questions are easily answered. But I submit that even the seemingly obvious ones ("Who will enforce it? The police of course!") have much deeper, perhaps subtler, implications. Things quickly get more complicated, and I’m really only scratching the surface of questions and implementation details that might (or should) come up.

As usual, I’m a firm believer in stressing the limits of our knowledge and capabilities when designing systems, especially large overbearing ones like governments. Each of these questions could easily fill out essays or even full reports or books with the vast array of implications and ramifications that like tree limbs expand outward. It’s foolish to think that any human controlled central authority could adequately handle it along with the zillions of other things it may already (or in the future) decide to concern itself with.

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