Commentary

U.S. Right to Resist Treaty

If the Bush administration seems lukewarm to the more radical proposals the World Health Organization (WHO) is considering for its treaty on tobacco control, that’s good news. After all, tobacco use isn’t infectious. Nor is a wisp of smoke harmful as it crosses national borders. An adult’s decision to smoke is voluntary and individual. Children are different, of course, as proven by 50 state laws that make the sale of cigarettes to minors illegal. Clearly, we don’t need world government to deal with that issue.

As to specifics:

  • Using the terms “mild” and “light” in ads? The more information the better, provided the ads are truthful. Consumers can distinguish puffery from hard evidence.
  • Raising cigarette taxes? Not if you want to deter smuggling, which is now financing terrorist groups. Besides, cigarette taxes are regressive — another burden imposed on poor people who are supposedly the WHO’s beneficiaries.
  • Curbing secondhand smoke? The science is questionable, and government regulation, more than cigarette smoke, has poisoned the atmosphere. Let private-property owners permit or prohibit smoking — for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all. Patrons who object may go elsewhere.

If we’ve learned anything from nourishing a free society for more than two centuries, it’s this: Individual decisions are best left to individuals. When occasionally those decisions impose costs on innocent bystanders, state government is sometimes justified in intervening. Rarely is there a need — much less constitutional authority — for the federal government to dictate private consumption choices. And never do we relinquish national sovereignty over such matters to a global organization, especially one like the WHO, which will only be encouraged to expand its social agenda without any sense of restraint or concern for personal liberty.

U.S. leadership does not consist of harmonizing international regulatory and tax policy, suppressing commercial advertising or banning cigarettes in private places. Real leadership — especially important for developing countries trying to shake off their stifling socialist traditions — promotes respect for private property and free choice. The best lesson the U.S. could teach is to reject the WHO tobacco treaty. Good riddance.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, a public policy research group.