Ron Paul's Texas Straight Talk - A weekly Column
April 13, 1998
Proposed tobacco deal undermines personal responsibility
In a free society, individuals must bear the cost of their choices

An easy target these days is the tobacco industry; it is under attack by nearly everyone.

It is true they profit from selling a dangerous product, but so do the manufacturers of automobile, airplane, guns, plastic bags and compressed oxygen, as well as food producers, drug companies and coffee farmers. It is indisputable fact that anything can be dangerous when used incorrectly or excessively. Even oxygen, the very gas which gives us life, can be deadly when used incorrectly.

Tobacco company executives have come to symbolize much of what is wrong with corporate America and our corrupt system of special interests, favoritism, and interventionism. For decades, big tobacco lobbied for, and gladly accepted, subsidies, while anyone with a grain of common sense knew smoking was a bad habit that adversely affected some people's health.

But there were specific gains to be realized from the charade that surrounded tobacco sales. Pretending that smoking was a benign habit made it easier to collect benefits from the nonsmoking taxpayers. And the alternative, arguing for personal responsibility for risk, has hardly been in vogue for the last several decades.

Over the past 50-plus years, responsibility for risk has slowly shifted from the individual to the nanny-state. And the tobacco industry has been a willing accomplice to this betrayal of individual responsibility, in the name of getting taxpayer subsidies. The reality is that big tobacco put the welcome mat out for big government, and now they are having to face the music.

Fundamentally, though, the question is this: who has responsibility for our well-being? Who should make decisions regarding risk-taking and personal habits, the Government or the individual?

During the Clinton health care debate, tobacco and nearly every other industry took the easy way out. They conceded that it was government's responsibility to provide care for everyone; which means, of course, that it is the obligation of the government to force one person to pay for the treatment of the bad habits of another.

When the free market works, medical insurance premiums adjust to reflect the cost of habits like smoking, sky diving, overeating, and medical preconditions. When Government pays, the concept of insurance goes out the window and everybody gets everything paid for, regardless of their behavior. This, of course, explains why people in socialized nations, like England, continue to smoke in increasing numbers. Socializing the cost of the consequences increases participation in risky behavior.

Persons who have harmed their health by smoking have learned they can coerce those with good health into paying for the consequence of their bad habit. In fact, many who harm themselves through their lifestyles, not just a single bad habit, believe they have a right to be taken care of by someone else. This includes not only those who smoke, but those who drink excessively, or perform sexual acts which increase their chance of acquiring AIDS or hepatitis, or who refuse a proper diet to treat diabetes or heart conditions. To the extent one can lower the cost of a risky habit by having someone else pay for it, the less likely one is to worry about consequences.

It is this abdication of personal responsibility that drives contradictory drug laws; we say a particular drug is illegal, which inspires the use of dirty needles, and then serves to further the spread AIDS and hepatitis. In the name of compassion, the government then forces non-users to pay for free needles so the addicts can keep using their illegal drugs. Nothing could be more bizarre.

Not once have we heard a tobacco industry leader defend his right to sell a risky product, without fraud or coercion, to an informed consumer. In a free society, the user must be held responsible - absent fraud - for the risk he assumes, not the seller of any given product.

Yes, the leaders of the tobacco industry deserve sharp criticism. Once precedent is set in this matter, it will be only a matter of time before the manufacturers of automobiles will be liable for all accidents, even if the drivers are speeding and intoxicated. Chocolate addicts will sue Hershey Candies, while people with high cholesterol can bankrupt cattle ranchers. The whole notion is absurd.

The proposed tobacco deal does great harm because it further undermines the principle of individual responsibility. Undermining this principle not only drives up the costs of medical treatment and the products involved, it actually encourages dangerous behavior. After all, the typical response to future generations will be, `If I'm unfortunate and become ill or injured engaging in a particular activity, the seller or the Government will be made to take care of me.'

If this attitude toward consumer risk and personal responsibility is not changed, the chances for a free market and prosperous society will dissipate like so much cigarette smoke blown by a breeze.