Sex and Cigarettes

In defending the provisions of the Criminal Code relative to prostitution which the Supreme Court ultimately invalidated in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, the federal government argued that their goal was to deter prostitution ― which, however, they did not criminalize. Presumably, given their effects, which were mostly to expose sex workers to violence from clients and pimps, these provisions were supposed to make them too afraid of sex work to keep at it. (The Supreme Court, I should note, did not accept the government’s characterization of the prostitution provisions’ purpose.)

As I wrote in discussing the Bedford decision, this is a hypocritical approach ― “[n]ot criminalizing prostitution but hoping that if we make it awful enough it will go away.” Unfortunately, Bill C-36, the federal government’s proposed response to Bedford, in many ways doubles down on this approach of hoping to drive people out of sex work by making it desperately miserable, without prohibiting them from engaging in it (although it does criminalize the sex workers’ clients). In the case of sex work, this strategy has attracted withering criticism, and rightly so.

But in at least one other context, it is deployed without any protest. When it comes to government attempts to deter smoking, hardly anyone these days thinks it wrong to disgust smokers into quitting (or to disgust potential smokers into not taking up the habit), while not banning cigarettes (and eagerly continuing  to collect taxes on them). The government requires printing disgusting graphic pictures on cigarette packaging, and it tries to prohibit tobacco products that taste like something other than tobacco. As tobacco companies try to get around these rules, scientists and advocates urge it to widen the bans, arguing that

If people are going to use tobacco, then it should taste like tobacco … It should be harsh smoke that they’re inhaling and should not be hidden in the flavours that are being added to the products.

The reasoning is an exact parallel of that which the federal government applies to prostitution. It is not very much of a stretch to imagine Peter Mackay thinking, if not saying, that if people are going to become prostitutes, they should feel like prostitutes; that it should be the fear and squalor that they’re feeling, which should not be hidden behind the comfort and safety of well-protected work environments.

Needless to say, tobacco policy does not raise quite the same sort of concerns as sex work policy does. Legally, there is a constitutional right to the security of the person, but no right to be free from disgust. At the level of morality, it is arguably less objectionable to “nudge” people through disgust than through fear. Yet the similarities between the two policies are remarkable. In both cases, the government (and advocates urging it on) seek to deter a behaviour that prevailing morality finds reprehensible (the sale of sex, the use of tobacco) not by prohibiting it, but by subjecting those who engage in it to the heavy pressure of their own negative emotions (fear, disgust).

I’m not sure if there are other examples of laws that operate in this way in Canada. (One superficially similar case, Québec’s former rule prohibiting butter-coloured margarine, was obviously motivated not by moral concerns but by the pressure of the dairy lobby.) One example that does come to mind, however, is the laws requiring one or both of the parents of a minor to be notified before she can have an abortion, which exist in a number of States in the U.S. Again, the governments of these States seek to deter what they regard as a morally undesirable practice by exposing those about to engage in it to shame and possibly fear (as well as financial and other pressures).

I am inclined to think that this approach is wrong, whether in the case of sex work, abortion, or smoking. As Jeremy Waldron’s work on the Rule of Law and human dignity emphasizes, law normally tries ― and ought to try ― to treat those subject to it as human beings, endowed with dignity and capacity for rational choice. It does not, and ought not to, treat them as objects or beast who need to be prodded around. Regulatory schemes that rely on visceral negative emotions such as fear, disgust, or shame seem to me to come close to doing that. To be sure, law often relies on a certain fear of negative consequences of non-compliance with its substantive or formal requirements (whether punishment, liability, invalidity or unenforceability, etc.). But, for one thing, it seems to me that, although the difference is difficult to put into words, the nature of this fear is not the same, and not as disturbing. Perhaps more importantly, and more clearly, the unpleasant consequences of non-compliance  are something the law explicitly tells people to avoid. There is no manipulation going on. They are also produced by the legal system itself ― by the judges who announce them, by the prison wardens and bailiffs who enforce them, and so on, not by external factors for the law purports not to take responsibility.

These thoughts are somewhat tentative, and I would welcome correction and contradiction. If I am right however, this sort of manipulation by negative emotions in the service of majoritarian morality is wrong, and we should oppose it, regardless of whether it is applied to sex work, abortion access ― or cigarettes.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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