15 August 2013: A tobacco-free generation – what does it take?


How does 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle impact tobacco control initiatives and public policies? Yale-NUS professors Jon Berrick and Sandra Field joined hands to explore this and co-authored the paper titled “Does tobacco prohibition violate Millian liberalism?” which was presented by Dr Field to much discussion at the Australasian Association of Philosophy 2013 Annual Meeting at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, in July 2013.

The idea for this paper first took root when a mathematics professor met a political philosopher at a Yale-NUS Faculty Workshop in January 2012. Having conducted extensive research and published papers on tobacco control, Professor Berrick is the originator of a radical health proposal that has attracted international acclaim and won praise from health groups and governments. His tobacco-free generation proposal, published in 2010, advocates for legislation precluding the sale and supply of tobacco to individuals born after a certain year, to protect them from the harmful effects of tobacco. Moved by the realization that “if tobacco was a new product today, it would never have been allowed”, he and Dr Field, a young political philosopher, decided that together they could explore reconstructing what John Stuart Mill would have made of the contemporary tobacco control debate. Mill’s philosophy has been commonly used as an ethical touchstone to evaluate public policy. According to Mill’s Harm Principle, society may infringe on individual liberty if and only if the exercise of that liberty causes harm to others. A number of countries where the debate over tobacco is keenest are precisely those where the influence of Mill’s writing on public discourse is greatest.

“In light of the extreme toxicity of tobacco to human health, combined with its addictiveness, we wanted to argue that a modern-day Millian liberal would be supportive of the tobacco-free generation proposal,” Dr Field shared.

The project offers an unusual yet intriguing opportunity for academic philosophy to inform the discussion of a health policy, and is a fine example of the interdisciplinary culture at Yale-NUS College. As students at the College embark on a Common Curriculum that trains them to examine issues across disciplines and perspectives, faculty similarly work in multidisciplinary teams for a thematic approach to teaching. The result is a community of learning that offers limitless opportunities for intellectual synergies and new discoveries.

Professor Berrick says of his experience: “Since this is my first collaboration with a philosopher, it’s been quite an educational experience for me. I’m used to mathematical writing, where all terms have – have to have – very precise, usually invented, meanings. So, the conventional language of philosophy, where meanings are sensitive to context and sometimes need teasing out with a long explanation, is a new art form for me. Even more so when analysing a 150-year-old text, based on the assumptions of a past era. I’ve really appreciated Sandra’s good-humored patience in introducing me to the genre.”