Last week the Indiana Chamber of Commerce sent out a letter to Indiana Lawmakers calling for raising the cigarette tax, increasing the legal smoking age, and repealing the “smokers’ bill of rights.” The letter claims that such a move “sends a clear signal that we’ve got to get serious as a state about tackling this longstanding challenge.” The letter correctly points out that Indiana is one of the least healthy states in terms of both smoking and obesity levels, and this is a serious issue we should tackle. However, as we look at the public health we must not forget the proper place and role of government: securing our liberties.
Raising the legal smoking age is as absurd as it is intrusive. An 18 year old can vote, drive, be drafted or volunteer to serve in uniform, and is a legal adult. If that free individual decides on their own to smoke, then it should be their decision as an American to do so. It is the mark of a free society that individuals have the liberty to make choices on their own. One may argue that smoking is bad for public health (and it is), but the freedom of the individual to make an independent decision is more important than the government deciding what’s good for us. If we make the determination that the state should be able to regulate what we can legally ingest merely on the pretense of health then we should support a prohibition on all smoking. As a matter of fact if we decide that government mandated health is more important than individual liberty we should ban processed sugar, soft drinks and fatty foods altogether.
Using the cigarette tax to manipulate consumption is not a new idea. Nor is it a new idea to use the increased revenue to fund a pet project, such as a “smoking cessation plan” as the letter suggests. New York has the highest cigarette tax of any state in the union, and yet their revenue from the tax fell by about $400 million between 2010 and 2015 – but not because people quit smoking. As always happens when government manipulates the market, there are unintended consequences, in this case a cigarette black market. Not only has this caused a wave of smuggling, but it also arguably led to the death of Eric Garner when police confronted him for suspicion of selling untaxed single cigarettes.
The letter was correct however in pointing out that employers should be able to consider the use of tobacco as a hiring consideration, a practice currently prohibited under the “smokers’ bill of rights.” Just as one person has the right to choose to smoke, another person should have the right to decide not to hire that individual and potentially take on some of their healthcare costs. This will allow each business to decide what is best for them, and the incentive of a job will be enough to convince some people to stop smoking. This is the best way to attack the public health issue of smoking without violating individual liberties or government manipulating behavior through a tax.
The Chamber of Commerce is a fantastic organization that does a lot of good in our communities, but sometimes in seeking to create a business-friendly environment they can forget that the best thing in almost all cases is simply letting free people be free. In matters of public policy we should not seek to subordinate freedom to anyone’s idea of what will create wealth. Let the smokers smoke, and let the employers make decisions. In the end, freedom is the most business-friendly policy. there is.