Let Kids Smoke

Libertarians quite properly believe the tobacco companies should be free to sell cigarettes to consumers, without fear of liability. The smoker chooses to take the risk of smoking, and he has a right to do so. Yet even libertarians seem to accept the notion that cigarettes should not be sold to minors. In the tradition of libertarian critical inquiry, I have a one question for them: why? Why restrict the liberty of R.J. Reynolds & Co. to sell to kids? After all, other vendors sell kids candy and cokes, CDs and movie tickets. Presumably the little crumb crunchers have enough legal capacity to form a contract to purchase at least some consumer items. Why not tobacco?

Kids are generally not allowed to engage in harmful or dangerous activities (such as parachuting, rock-climbing) or to take actions with permanent consequences (such as getting a tattoo, having a child) without parental consent. The child’s consent alone is not enough. The argument seems to be that cigarettes, too, are harmful or have permanent consequences. Thus the child is not yet competent to choose to permanently harm himself by smoking. The tobacco companies have been browbeaten into repeating this line. R.J. Reynolds states on its website that it “does not want children to smoke, not only because it is illegal to sell to minors in every state, but also because of the inherent health risks of smoking and because children lack the maturity of judgment to assess those risks.”

But this argument is flawed. Even if we assume that smoking can increase the risk of disease, it is widely known that quitting smoking greatly reduces smoking-related risks. After all, as anti-smoking fanatics routinely say, It is never too late to stop smoking. They maintain, for example, that by quitting smoking you will live longer and have a lower chance of having a heart attack or cancer. Anti-smoking zealots and other assorted health nuts never quite come right out and say that if you quit smoking early enough, you eventually get back to normal. Yet, some do admit that, at least for heart disease, “About 15 years after quitting the risk is close to that of persons who have never smoked.” And they acknowledge that the sooner you quit, the better.

But all this means that youthful smoking, by itself, does not pose a serious long-term health threat. Take a boy who starts smoking at age 15. When he turns 18, he has already been smoking for three years. At that point, he is mature enough to stop smoking, if he wants. Surely, if he never smokes again, the effects of three youthful years of smoking will wane as the years go by. It does not seem plausible that a few years of smoking in his teens will appreciably increase long-term health risks.

On the other hand, as an adult, he can now decide to continue smoking, despite the risks of doing so. This continued smoking may indeed lead to detrimental health consequences down the road, if it continues long enough. But any long-term harm incurred will be due to his decisions, as an adult, to continue smoking. It will not be because of a few years of youthful fun. Thus, the kid’s smoking does not pose a long-term danger to his health. Only continued smoking after he turns 18 does — but such a decision is within the adult’s rights.

But wait, it could be argued, the problem in this theory is that tobacco (nicotine) is addictive. The newly-minted smoking adult cannot simply choose to quit smoking, because of the addiction inflicted on this body when he was a minor. Thus, because tobacco is addictive, the kid is inflicting a long-term, permanent harm on himself, which a child is not competent to do.

Rubbish. Addiction is a myth. It is incompatible with free will. The 18-year old clearly has a choice to continue smoking or not. The fact that his body is chemically addicted to nicotine simply means that there is a cost incurred — withdrawal symptoms, and the like — if he chooses to quit smoking. But all choices have opportunity costs, and the choice to stop smoking is no different than any other in this regard.

What about the argument that parents have the right to prohibit their kids from smoking, and most parents do oppose their kids smoking, and thus selling to kids presumptively is done in violation of the parent’s wishes? Some parents do permit their kids to make purchases, if not for their own use, then for the use of adults — e.g., Dad sends Junior down to the 7-11 to pick up a pack of Marlboro Lights. Why should this sale be prohibited? As for kids who buy and smoke cigarettes against their parents’ wishes — it is the parents’ job to discipline their kids, not tobacco companies or convenience stores. Forcing Junior to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes until he’s blue in the face; or making him eat two or three cigarettes, as a boyhood friend of mine experienced, ought to be sufficient to put the fear of God in him for a while.

So I say, let’s bring back the Joe Camel mascot — and recruit Barney, Mickey Mouse, and Pokemon while we’re at it. Smoking is undeniably cool. Let people enjoy it when they can. Smoking is for the young.

July 25, 2000

N. Stephan Kinsella is a patent lawyer in Houston. He does not engage in the nasty habit of smoking cigarettes. Obviously, he does not have any children yet. His personal website is located at www.stephankinsella.com.