Don’t put it off—put it out

On my blog in Portuguese I have a column or tag called “what really grinds my gears,” where I discuss little annoying things from daily life—mostly situations that could be easily improved or even fully resolved with just a bit of rational thought and good faith effort. I seldom post under that column, and I never thought I’d teleport it to a blog with an accent. But you’ve asked for it, Genevan smokers! Smoking is outta control in Geneva. Everywhere. You look around, you see someone smoking. At any given time.

“I smoke, love it, and won’t quit—that’s none of your business,” retorts my hypothetical reader who is a devoted Genevan smoker. Not so fast. Tobacco is legal and I will defend to death (of lung cancer because of passive smoking) your right to smoke it. And as much as I hate smoking (and you’ll see I really do), I won’t even argue it should be illegal, simply because in principle I don’t think it should. People should be free to make their own choices, including poor ones, as long as the results of their choices don’t directly affect others in a negative way. One thing that affects me very much, however, is smoking in the streets, and that’s what I take issue with. So excuse me: smoking is indeed my business.

In economic terms, smoking in public can be considered a negative externality—when the act of an economic actor imposes uncovered costs on others, on the society in general. Those social costs, which can simply be a reduction in other people’s wellbeing, are not considered by the actor taking the harmful act. You could then say that the actor will underestimate the total cost of the good he demands, and will tend to overconsume it. In the aggregate, the demand will go beyond the optimal social level, that is, the level of consumption the society would ultimately desire.

When a Genevan smoker decides to smoke a pack of cigarettes, he only looks at his costs (how much he will pay for them). He doesn’t think about the social costs (the loss of wellbeing incurred by others). For that reason, a pack of cigarettes seems to him much cheaper than it actually is, and he will demand and smoke more and more packs of cigarettes—goods that are actually “bads.” All Genevan smokers together, then, will make an absolute mess: they will smoke way beyond the level that the Geneva society would find optimal.


Even the Genevan statue in Plainpalais smokes

In fact, acknowledgement of the externality of smoking leads governments all over the world to tax cigarettes. Such a tax—called a pigouvian tax—is a way to internalize costs, forcing the smoker to take into account the social costs of his smoking. In a perfect world, a tax that is properly determined and applied will mess up enough with peoples’ incentives to smoke that the optimal social level of smoking will not be exceeded.

In the real world, which is far from perfect, when you see people smoking like chimneys in Geneva, you are invited to think about at least three options. You can scrap economic theory (no way!). In the alternative, you can find that the optimal social level of smoking in Geneva is stratospheric (which I find hard to believe). As a last choice, you can conclude that the Genevan’s demand for cigarettes is strongly inelastic (even a large increase in their price wouldn’t push consumption significantly down) or that cigarettes are undertaxed—or both.

Now let me just be very clear why smoking in the streets imposes social costs, diminishes my wellbeing, and, more generally, grinds my gears.

First, it’s an obvious public health issue. The Genevan’s smoking increases my chances—as a passive smoker—of having respiratory problems and even lung cancer. Will the Genevan pay his share of my hospital bills? The Genevan smokes, but everybody pays: himself, people who may get sick, the government. Me.

Second, it’s a fire hazard. The lit up cigarette the Genevan smoker carelessly throws out of his car directly into the pile of dry leaves in my backyard causes my house to burn to the ground. Don’t laugh. That could very well happen. “Every year, almost 1,000 smokers and non-smokers are killed in home fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials,” only in the United States.

Third, it makes my clothes smell bad. I doubt it that the Genevan will buy my detergent and fabric softener, compensate me for the time and energy wasted in washing clothes that are stinking smoke but would be otherwise considered clean, or pay my bill at the dry cleaner’s. Of course that can become less of a problem if all my clothes end up burning to the ground with my house, thanks to Monsieur the Genevan smoker.

Fourth, the cigarette butts in the streets—a byproduct of the frenetic smoking in this city—are aesthetically unpleasant. Just now, as I waited for the tram, in a coup d’œil, I counted 50 cigarette butts on the platform. A fine (or should I rather say gross?) example of urban pollution.

It’s also a terrible thing for socialization. A new good friend might be standing right beside me at the tram stop, but if someone starts to smoke near us I’ll be forced to move away, and we won’t interact, and I’ll miss the chance of meeting him.

Finally, replace “a new good friend” with “the woman of my life,” and “him” with “her” in the last sentence, and you’ll understand why smoking can also be disastrous for people’s love lives.

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