Cigarettes, booze and fat: does banning bad behaviour just make us worse?

April 3, 2014 by
Filed under: Adam Lent 

The popularity of banning, taxing and regulating daft behaviour never seems to dim. Just in the last two months we’ve seen smoking in cars with children banned, plans laid out to prevent ‘vaping’ in public, rising demands for a sugar tax and today we’ve been told that cigarette packaging will face new regulation to make it look boring.

The common (and usually ineffective) objection to these plans is that they restrict the freedom of the individual and create a ‘nanny state’.

But I wonder if we should be exploring a somewhat different concern: what such solutions do to our capacity to deal with the next problem that comes along.

The truth is that the human tendency to give in to temptation is very strong.  I am certain that by the time smoking, drinking and eating fat has been regulated out of existence, we will have found other enjoyable things to do us harm. Who knows, maybe we’ll face vociferous campaigns from opticians for the Government to restrict the use of virtual headsets and relationship counsellors will be up in arms about the failure to regulate robo-love.

My worry is that the more we rely on the state to stop us doing bad things, the less we develop creative, voluntary and lasting solutions to avoid temptation. As a result, we just keep going through this cycle of discovering a new pleasure, enjoying it too much and suffering the consequences before the state finally steps in after a lot of damage has been done.

This notion that  banning things only sets us up (ironically) for further damage is just a hypothesis; I do not know if it’s true. But I think we should find out because when I look at the now famous voluntary and imaginative effort by Oklahoma to lose weight, I wonder what sort of long-term resilience and benefit that City has now secured that we would miss should we go down the route of taxing and regulating away the latest crisis of temptation.


  • Oliver

    Very good.

    It occurs to me that the impressive decline in smoking has had very little do with taxation, banning, regulation, legislation or indeed any kind of government intervention; it’s had everything to do with the dissemination of information. A wiser public with an admirably high number of individuals the world over have made a conscious, adult, sovereign decision based on that information to modify their behaviour in order to achieve an objectively greater level of health and well being.

    Nobody ever went to jail for smoking tobacco. Nobody ever had their door kicked down for smoking tobacco, kidnapped by massive armed bureaucracies and locked in a cage for smoking tobacco. Nobody
    was ever criminalised, or had their future prospects blighted for smoking
    tobacco. Compared to the level of state intervention citizens experience with relatively substances that are socially reviled on arbitrary lines, tobacco always saw the least amount of state intervention and punitive repercussions. Yet we have seen the greatest success in reducing its use and improving public health.

    For reasons passing understanding this point is seldom if ever made in mainstream news or commentary.