The right amount of smoking

I’ve recently been watching two social trends, one with fear and one with relief.

Both are about the legality of “vices.”

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The first is gambling. I see betting ads everywhere. Gambling is taking over sports. It is also taking over our cities. Poker machines are proliferating across the poorest suburbs, while Sydney’s glittering waterfront is about to get a new casino. Packers new Barangaroo den is ostensibly for high-rollers, but of course will be for everyone within a few years of opening.

Given its corrupting influence and addictive properties, I think gambling’s reach has become too great.

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Found easily on Craigslist

The second “vice” I’ve been paying attention to is drug legalisation. I think we are on the brink of having marijuana made legal across the western world. A big part of the US has done it. Canada just voted for it. The UN itself has released a report saying the war on drugs is a really terrible idea, causing problems like the Mexican cartels.

Prohibition is a proven failed policy when it comes to alcohol – perhaps it will soon be abandoned as a policy for drugs too?

I see people very skeptical of drug control writing in the mainstream press often and I think we’re on the brink of a great relaxation.

That’s great.

But how to reconcile these two conflicting views? Banning is bad but full legalisation is bad too. There could be a slippery slope here. First society legalises a vice, then you get to the point where the industry tbecomes so rich and powerful it ends up controlling society?

There needs to be a middle ground. Smoking is a good example. We can’t ban it. The minute you do, the illegal trade pops up. And for that matter, you can’t even tax it too heavily. I’m actually a bit concerned about Labor’s plan to hike tobacco taxes so sharply.

According to research commissioned by the tobacco companies black market smokes account for 15 per cent of consumption. That research is disputed. Google Trends, however, suggests people searching for “chop chop” (a term for illegal tobacco) has risen, whereas interest in the top cigarette brand has fallen.

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The reality is – there has to be an optimal level of smoking. Setting policy to reduce use to zero creates black markets, with all the problems that entails.

We have to set policy – licensing, taxation, behavioural control campaigns, advertising laws, perhaps even government monopolies – to create a certain, appropriate amount of each vice.

With smoking, we’ve controlled it at a few key points – advertising, point of sale, pricing and packaging; and campaigned against it. The policy raises tax and also incurs costs, but is effective at raising money and reducing use, while, (hopefully) keeping the illegal trade at bay.

Would society be better if we legalised and controlled every vice under the sun? It seems crazy – I can imagine an ad break telling us not to bet, then how to quit opiates, and then the risks of starting to smoke methamphetamine, even though they would all be legal and all sources of government revenue.

The costs of so much policy seem high, and the risks of not getting the optimal amount of use right seem high. But policy can be tweaked, whereas an outright ban is a tougher thing to shift.

Figuring out the optimal level of smoking – and of drinking, sports betting, pokie machines, dope smoking and heroin injection – is a delicate question. It means society knowingly sacrifices some people to addictive behaviours that harm them.

But the alternative is to sacrifice people in an act of bad faith. I would rather make things legal and trust our policy-makers to eventually get the settings right.