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Hitchens on Tobacco (in person!)
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I just got back from a free public conference at Southern Methodist University here in Dallas, entitled "Tobacco at the Crossroads: A Debate on the Ethics of Reduced Harm Products". It was sponsored by the Maguire Center for Ethics and responsibility, and Christopher Hitchens was the keynote speaker.

I'd heard him on the Glen Mitchell Show, a local talk show on NPR here in Dallas, and he talked about a wide range of issues, and they noted that he'd be speaking at SMU today, though I don't think they ever said on what topic. I thought he'd be talking about Iraq or religion, and didn't know it was about smoking until just before the event. But anyway, I went with Jill, and it was a pretty interesting venue (and there was a free lunch!).

Hitchens is essentially a libertarian on tobacco, and all drugs, really. He began with a discursive introduction about the roots of Methodism and the fact that he'd attended a Methodist boys school in England, and it seemed for a little while that he would never get to the point at hand. But he came around, and launched into a liberal interpretation of the phrase "pursuit of happiness" from the Declaration of Independence. He noted that previously the triad had been "life, liberty, and property" and that it had been a peculiar stroke of genius on the part of Jefferson to replace "property" with "the pursuit of happiness". He argued that such a pursuit should necessarily leave it up to citizens, as much as possible, to decide how they should pursue their happiness. And in his case that would include lots of cigarettes and Johnny Walker Black. He also argued eloquently for the legalization of drugs, and damn near had me convinced this was the way to go.

The only real problem I had with his assertions overall was the contradiction between being competely libertarian with regard to allowing people to engage in dangerous, risky behavior, and his call for socialized medicine. I'm with him on the first, but not on the second.

If you want to smoke and drink to the point where you need extensive treatment, and maybe even a new liver, why should I have to pay disproportiately for your bad choices? If I choose to eat like a hog, why should you pick up the full tab for my heart disease and diabetes treatments? People who engage in riskier behavior should foot most of the bill for their health care. That's only fair, isn't it?

Now, smokers may already be helping to offset those costs with the tax they pay on cigarettes, but by that logic, hamburgers should also carry a heavy tax, since obesity and heart disease are larger societal health problems than smoking-related conditions. And such taxes are never going to completely offset the massive expense of health care, unless we tax cigarettes until they're $40 a pack.

So socialized medicine and ethical libertarianism don't really seem all that compatible to me.

Otherwise, Hitchens' speech was interesting and funny throughout, and his answers to questions thrown at him was likewise a lot of fun.

When one doctor asked him if he was being paid by the tobacco industry to espouse these views he said something like, "No, but I certainly wish they would pay me. I'd be happy to take their money. If you're asserting that I would say something that wasn't true for money, then I might take what you said as an insult. But I'd happily take money from people to say what I think is right."

Anyway, it was nice to see him in person, even if he wasn't talking about an issue I care about greatly.

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