When freedom goes up in smoke

By Carlo Strenger

MK Gilad Ardan has succeeded in tightening the noose around the necks of smokers and bar owners, and unlawful smoking is now punishable with higher fines. Shouldn’t we applaud his pursuit to evict smoking not just from restaurants, but from bars and pubs as well? Finally Israel is joining the chorus of the relentless hunt of the politically correct after the smokers!(Full disclosure: I am a smoker.)

Isn’t this a triumph of culture and civilization? I doubt it. If anything, we are witnessing another step toward a paternalist conception of a state that tells us what we are allowed to do and how we are supposed to live our lives. I am not impressed at all that the United States and the European Union have been sliding down the same slope that leads the state to tell individuals how to live.

Rational discussion of the issue has become impossible, to the point that evidence is being withheld from the public. For example: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an affiliate of the World Health Organization (WHO), conducted a seven-year study that did not show that secondary smoking has any impact on health – but the study’s publication was suppressed, because it would have shaken the thoughtless consensus by which we all “know” that secondary smoking kills.

The studies that are currently quoted, stressing that a large percentage of voters are in favor of no-smoking laws, are not to the point, either. One of the greatest dangers of democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, is the “tyranny of the majority.” It is remarkable how the media avoid really addressing arguments against the anti-smoking law, because this would violate the established consensus. When open discussion is avoided, life under a totalitarian thought-police is not far off.

If indeed the rationale for the law against smoking is to avoid suffering or harm to non-smokers, there are still ways to take into account the desires of the one quarter of the population that smokes. Smoking spaces can be designated and bars can be rated by the degree of the separation of these spaces, so non-smokers can choose to avoid them.

But no such effort to accommodate both smokers and non-smokers has been made. Instead the Health Ministry triumphantly tells us that the percentage of smokers in Israel is going down. Does that mean that the state is supposed to educate adults on whether they want to smoke or not? Are we going to close the beaches at noon because exposure to the sun causes skin cancer (a causal link much more strongly established than the health effect of secondary smoking)?

The state is not supposed to be the nanny that tells us how to live, and we are coming close to a situation like this. Not long ago, MK Ruhama Avraham-Balili tried to pass a law that would have limited the hours during which alcohol can be dispensed. It did not pass, but the very idea that a lawmaker can prescribe how we live our private lives should shock us. Political philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Hannah Arendt have also warned against the tendency of the state to interfere in our lives, and their warnings should not go unheeded.

One might argue that, after all, only good things can result from a ban on smoking in public places: Smokers will smoke less, and non-smokers will suffer less, but this is a short-sighted view.

There is a price to be paid for turning our cities into health spas, clean of all vices. If cultural creativity has always been associated with vices of many sorts, it’s because, beyond a certain limit, over-regulation of our private lives, our desires and our habits leads to gray uniformity and sterilizes the cultural atmosphere.

New York City used to be a bustling city, in which huge corporate headquarters and respectable law firms were balanced by areas filled with artists who frequented bars and jazz clubs filled with smoke. Giuliani and Bloomberg outlawed smoking in all public places, took care to wipe out all seedy areas, and as a result, N.Y.C. has become clean, sterile and less interesting, because the pressure to conform has made alternative lifestyles more difficult to maintain.

Vienna of the late 19th century, Paris of the early 20th century, New York of the 1940s and 1950s, were all unruly cities. Along with cigarettes and alcohol there was enormous cultural creativity. These were the cities that allowed Freud, Klimt, Picasso, Braque, Sartre, Rothko, Philip Roth and Woody Allen to flourish. Not all of these smoked, and I am not arguing that there is a connection between smoking and creativity. But thereis a correlation between how open a society is and how much creativity and joie de vivre it nourishes. We are entitled to our vices, and the virtue of moralizing political correctness may do more damage to our society than cigarette smoke.

Carlo Strenger is a professor in Tel Aviv University’s department of psychology, and a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.


  1. Thomas Sayer

    Dear Sir, You are expresing the thoughts and fealings of many of the people who are being represed by those who hav gotten there power to coerse and change our fredom into political slavery.
    I stand with you and Isrial in our resistance of a represive spread of government. The Christian way of life is fast being told we are not Chriatians any more. Untill Obama said that every thing was ok. Now both Jews and Christians have to watch our backs as we watch our fredom being taken away.