Erdoğan, cigarettes and the nanny state

Erdoğan, cigarettes and the nanny state

One of the significant changes in Turkish social life under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the smoking ban in public spaces. The first step of this ban came out in 2009, forcing all restaurants and hotels to ban smoking in all closed spaces. Many people at the time believed the ban would never work as Turkey is a heavily smoking nation. But on the whole it did. Turkey’s closed spaces have gradually become smoke-free. 

This week the government announced that the ban would now be extended to open public spaces as well, such as the open-air gardens of restaurants and public parks. Again, some people think it won’t work. But I think it will. I also hope and pray that it will.

Personally speaking, I’m a devoted enemy of cigarettes. I really don’t want to have any trace of smoke in the air I breathe. I was therefore fully supportive of the initial smoking bans in 2009 and now I’m fully supportive of the extended bans that are coming. I’m thankful to the AKP for introducing these regulations, which in my view help make Turkey a more livable country.

But I also have a problem with the changes. To be more precise, I had a problem this week when I heard President Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks about the smoking bans. On Feb. 9, Erdoğan hosted in Ankara a group of 250 people who had quit smoking. In his speech on the occasion, he defended the smoking bans but framed the issue with a totally different logic than mine. 

“You don’t have freedom to commit suicide, so you don’t have freedom to expose yourselves to terminal diseases ... There can be no such freedom as the freedom to smoke … The state must protect its citizens against tobacco, alcohol and drugs, just as it is obliged to protect them against crimes like theft and terrorism,” Erdoğan said. 

As these remarks suggest, Turkey’s president does not see smoking bans in public spaces as a measure to protect non-smoking individuals from pollution by smoking individuals. Rather, he wants to protect all individuals from what he sees as bad habits — which notably include alcohol as well. 

In my view, individuals should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they do not harm other individuals. Let people smoke and drink all night long, as long as they don’t blow the smoke in other people’s faces or drunkenly drive a car to the hazard of others. Advising them against the harmful effects of such “bad habits” — along with many other bad habits, such as eating too much baklava, which can make you obese — may be a good idea and even a good public health policy. But you can’t interfere in people’s lives to “protect” them from everything you deem to be harmful. 

Yet this fundamentally liberal view of the state apparently does not match with the view of our president. His remarks on cigarettes indicate that what he wants to establish is an overbearing nanny state, which will try to steer all of us toward what the president sees as the ideal, moral way of life. 

But I have news for the president: This will not work. It will not create a “moral society,” it will rather create a hatefully irritated society, (like we already are now). No wonder his remarks on cigarettes triggered a new campaign among secular Turks to defy the smoking ban by smoking more cigarettes everywhere. You may find this campaign stupid, as smoking is very bad for your health. But a nanny state that dictates a way of life to us is probably even worse.