We forget at our peril that the purpose of government is to protect its citizens’ rights — not to make them richer or healthier or more virtuous. Among those that seem to have forgotten this is the anti-tobacco lobby.

It’s reported this morning that tobacco company Philip Morris plans to introduce a new “hand-held electronic smoking device”, the “Heatbar”, which apparently toasts the cigarette rather than burning it — thereby eliminating most of the smoke. The device and its compatible cigarettes are already available in Switzerland.

Since the smoke is precisely what bugs most people about smoking, you’d think this would be hailed as a real breakthrough. But no, anti-tobacco campaigners are deeply hostile. The director of the Cancer Council called on the Government “to respond with appropriate legislation or regulation,” and The Age reports that Quit Victoria will petition the local council “to review the granting of a planning permit” for the company’s store.

Now there are good public policy reasons for governments to be concerned about smoking. Tobacco companies have a history of deceiving the public about how dangerous their products are, and it’s entirely reasonable that they should be made to carry health warnings. It’s also reasonable that there should be special protection for children.

And second-hand smoke is a major problem — there is scientific debate about the magnitude of its health risks, but no one can deny its irritation. That’s where smokeless “smoking” would be most appreciated — without the smoke, someone else’s tobacco is no more harmful to me than if they’re chewing nicotine gum.

But the anti-tobacco lobby seems to have lost sight of the public health issues in its single-minded pursuit of reducing tobacco consumption. That’s fine for a private organisation, but the state has got no business stopping adults from consuming whatever poisons they choose. Once the politics of puritanism and prohibition get going, they’re hard to stop.

(It’s sometimes argued that we have a collective interest in preventing smoking because our taxes help fund smokers’ medical care, but the reality is that taxes levied on tobacco products are more than enough to pay for that. Indeed, because smokers die sooner, most studies have concluded that the Government makes a substantial profit on the deal.)

For the sake of their own health, I’d be pleased if more of my fellow citizens would give up tobacco, but fundamentally I recognise that it’s none of my business. The Government should recognise that as well.