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Tobacco bans and smokers’ autonomy
  1. Daniel Halliday
  1. Correspondence to Dr Daniel Halliday, Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne, East Wing, Old Quad Building, Melbourne VIC 3010, Australia; daniel.halliday{at}

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Should tobacco be banned? The answer depends largely on two further questions. How much are smokers benefitted by being made to stop, or to not start? And what is the moral cost of their being made to stop by their government, as opposed to stopping due to the influence of policies that fall short of coercion?

Grill and Voigt provide one answer to the first question. They argue that the benefits of cessation are high enough to justify a ban on tobacco products.1 I partly agree: I share their view that the harms of tobacco consumption are great enough to justify at least some policies that force (rather than merely encourage) people to not smoke.i But the differences between policies of this sort are large enough that any general conclusion in favour of ‘a ban’ is incomplete.ii By not elaborating on what a ban might come to, Grill and Voigt leave the second question rather unaddressed. Of course, the authors hardly mean to say that anything goes when it comes to forming policies that force people to not smoke. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to build on their defence of the benefits of forced cessation by comparing different sorts of bans, and by comparing bans with other sorts of coercive policies.

I will pick up, therefore, where they leave off: granting that a ban's effects on well-being would be overall positive, a principal moral cost of a ban can be measured in terms of its infringement of smokers’ autonomy. Comparisons, then, can be sought in terms of how different policies infringe autonomy in different ways. What exactly might it mean, however, to speak of smokers’ autonomy? According to Grill and Voigt, autonomy should be thought of as a sort of ‘self-direction’ which obtains given ‘the absence of external …

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  • Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was first published online first. The references to the primary editorial have been updated to reflect the correct authorship.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i Non-coercive policies could remain justified alongside a ban. Warnings that highlight the dangers of drunk driving are one example of where governments seek to further deter behaviour that they have already prohibited. Tobacco policy could easily do the same.

  • ii In making these claims, I am not targeting Grill and Voigt's assumption that a smoking ban would be ‘effective’, which they make to set aside discussion of negative side effects and externalities, such as the stimulation of black markets, as well as fallibilities of the criminal justice system, such as racial bias in policing. In raising questions about the impact of a ban on autonomy, I am not simply raising questions about effectiveness, but about the moral cost of a ban even if it were effective.

  • iii I add the qualifier ‘paradigmatically’ to note that these remarks merely sketch the form of many familiar cases of coercion. Providing an entire theory of coercion (even legal coercion) is much more difficult.

  • iv See, for example, Husak.2

  • v (1986: 27).

  • vi Here, I leave aside the question of whether infringing autonomy by way of coercive threats might also reduce well-being, for example, through the threat itself or perhaps through the culture of fear that highly coercive public policy might encourage; nothing in Grill and Voigt's discussion suggests otherwise.

  • vii The classic discussion here is Feinberg.3

  • viii For a fuller exploration of these themes, see Duff.4

  • ix Husak (2013: 42) distinguishes taxes from ‘punitive measures’ characteristic of criminal law.

  • x For more discussion, see Halliday.5

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