No Smoking or Else in New York

Mario Rizzo* 

The New York City Council, rarely noted for its wisdom, has passed two pieces of legislation destined to be signed by Mayor Bloomberg. The first bans the sale of cigarettes to people under the age of 21. The second bans discounts on cigarettes to anyone.  The minimum price for a pack of cigarettes will be $10.50. Penalties for disobedience to the age-ban are a fine of $1,000 for the first time, $2,000 for the second time, and loss of license for “repeat offenders.”  I do not know what the penalties are for disobeying  the price control. I use the word “disobey” rather than “violate” because the former seems appropriate for paternalistic legislation.


Those who pass legislation like this presumably think that people between 18 and 21 are not autonomous individuals and their wills should not be respected. Smoking does not harm anyone except the smoker. There are plenty of rules in place to protect non-smokers. (Harm to non-smokers outside of the home is fantastically exaggerated. And in the workplace you don’t have to work there.)

The ban really seems odd in the context of all the commercial advertisement with the theme of being your own person and doing it your own way. It is also genuinely insulting to young men and women. Growing up is about making decisions and bearing consequences.  It is not about taking orders. At least this is what the psychologists tell us.

I am also amazed that 18-year-olds will not be allowed to buy cigarettes when the paternalists in government will allow them to sign up freely for the military with no paternalistic warnings or nudges. After all, in the military they will not only risk their lives but they will pick up all sorts of “nasty” habits – like smoking tobacco or weed or using drugs.

What most paternalists do not understand is that smoking can be a rational decision or at least no more imperfectly rational than most decisions we make in life. The younger you are the more the costs of tobacco usage are radically uncertain. We cannot predict the course of future medical technology. For example, today obese or overweight people are in much better health than in 1960. Medicines and treatments for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease are dramatically better. Unpredictable advances in medical technology may make the costs of smoking for today’s young people much lower than in the past. My point actually is a modest one. Under conditions of radical or Knightian uncertainty the “rational” thing to do is underdetermined. There is a much greater range of rational behavior than in simpler cases. It can be rational for young people to smoke, as well as not to smoke.

Amartya Sen made an argument years ago that (young) people should not be allowed to start smoking because smoking is akin to selling yourself into slavery. Further he argued that most libertarians, as well as John Stuart Mill, thought you shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Without getting into the slavery issue, I doubt that stopping smoking is even remotely like a slave trying to run away. I would suggest that the Underground Railroad and a smoking cessation clinic are very different. It is also useful to note that Mill did not advocate prohibition of alcohol despite the cycle of harm it creates for individuals. In today’s world, people use the term slavery very loosely.

Despite the efforts of reasonable people, we are on the verge of a great tobacco experiment. We’ll see if college students, for example, suddenly stop smoking or whether they get their cigarettes the same way they get their alcohol.



*Dr. Mario J. Rizzo is associate professor of economics and co-director of the Austrian Economics Program at New York University.  He received his BA from Fordham University, and his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago.  He was also a fellow in law and economics at the University of Chicago and at Yale University.  He currently lectures for the Institute for Humane Studies and is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. Professor Rizzo is also a member of the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty's Board of Advisors.