The tobacco-stained torch


During debates on the smoking ban, freedom is often invoked by both sides. On the one hand, your smoker or smoking-supporter argues that surely they should have the freedom to smoke wherever they like. On the other, supporters of the ban counter that it is unfair to subject non-smokers to tobacco smoke, and all its inherent risks, against their will just because they wish to be in a particular public area. Why should the right to smoke trump the right to be free of smoke?

That argument is probably one for the philosophers, and I’m not much interested in it because a policy solution to the problem does not require it to be answered. Libertarianism offers a perfectly just and amicable solution to the smoking dispute without the need for any intervention by the state at all. As with so many things, the solution is property.

The decision about whether or not smoking should be permitted or prohibited in a particular bar, restaurant or place of work should be entirely at the discretion of the owner of that property. This is a fundamentally just solution. After all, why should a smoke-averse individual who wishes to be in a particular bar trump the wishes of the owner of that premise, who smokes and like smokers? Similarly, what smoker could assert the right to smoke in a premise where the owner has forbidden it? Not only is this system just, but it also allows the market to find the balance between smoking and non-smoking venues. After all, smokers and non-smokers will both constitute consumer markets, generating demand for facilities in which they can either smoke or avoid smoke. The invisible hand will provide smoking, non-smoking and mixed facilities in the proportion to which they are required by the habits of the population. Property rights are upheld, and each side gets what it wants.

The only potential contested ground lies in the remaining grey area, ‘public spaces’. There are two kinds. The first is government property, which does not pose a serious problem as the government can exercise its right as property holder to ban or permit smoking the same as any other. The second, and more problematic, kind is public areas that are ‘held in common’ by or for the people. Should the government be treated as property holder in this instance, or should it not own these areas at all?

Henry Hill is the winner of the 2011 Young Writer on Liberty Award. He blogs at