Aiming at smoking arguments

By Greg Ellis

In light of the comments by Students’ Union Vice-President Operations and Finance Greg Clayton two weeks past in The Gauntlet, and the city of Calgary deciding to ban all smoking in public places in 2008, the smoking issue must be examined in more rigorous detail. It is the assumption below that the reader agrees on two things. First, that smoking does have a causal relationship to health problems, and second that the exposure to second hand does share a causal relationship to health problems in the third party non-smoker. There is absolutely no defense for persons to expect to be able to smoke in public places and accordingly smoking in public places should be prohibited immediately.

Pro-public smokers have drawn a loose relationship between a common practice and an entitlement. Because smoking is widely accepted within a public context any potential interference thereof represents a restriction of a behavior, assumed to be entitled, and thus an infringement on that behavior. Smokers seem to think that it is fair for the public not to be exposed to their second hand smoke provided the restriction is reasonable. That is, it is reasonable to have smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants or non-smoking buildings or facilities. Yet, the objections from the smokers began once the prohibition extended beyond the scope of the aforementioned reasonableness. For example, on campus we cannot expect smokers to have to leave the campus to smoke due to their experienced convenience. This balancing of interests seems sensible but in effect is not. Their objection carries little weight, unless they can effectively prove that their right to inconvenience overwhelms our rights to be protected from even minimum exposure to a harmful substance.

The disconnect between smokers and the public seemingly derives from the failure of many smokers to differentiate between actions that are self-regarding and not. Appealing to us with the idea of personal choice and liberty and a free-will without public interference, they have convinced us that since smoking has been allowed in the past, prohibiting it now in public places is a vulgar interference on an important component of their life. The fact of the matter is smoking is not a self-regarding action, it affects others besides the smoker.

To demonstrably show the failure of the argument and its correlation to a social custom, the introduction of a metaphor may help. Assume that I enjoyed spraying aerosol bottles. For some reason it brought me great pleasure to be in public spraying these bottles daily. The bottles were not pernicious but aggravated others and caused health woes particularly in those with upper respiratory problems. I was, however, on some level addicted to the spraying of these bottles. Would such a behavior ever be tolerated? Why or how then can smokers argue the defense actions with impunity? The answer seemingly lies in smoking as an entrenched element of social behavior.

The argument to allow restauranteurs et al choose themselves whether or not they will allow smoking is viable. If we accept the idea that market forces are accountable to themselves and will effectively deal with all situations then demand and supply will function and the problem will ultimately be solved. If my value system is one that I object to second hand smoke, then I can simply not attend bars or restaurants that allow smoking. The argument, however, collapses when we realize such a market is not truly free in the sense that my access to associated goods and services is limited by actions of others that are harmful to me. Moreover, it requires the potential for a compromise of my enjoyment of life in a context that does not affect the health of others. It may be relatively easy to not attend Cowboys, The Night Gallery or The Whiskey on any given night. Clearly, going to bars is not of paramount importance in my life. However, if for example my favorite DJ or band was there I would perhaps be forced to weigh the value of that experience against the downside of being exposed to the harmful effects of second hand smoke. The argument can be further stretched whereby the occupational choices of students for example, involve a cost benefit equation of the need for stable and reliable income (perhaps from a bar) and the propensity for long term health damage as a result. It seems apparent that such a system lacks any form of fairness whatsoever. I can think of no other realm of society where we are forced to make decisions in a market place influenced by the actions of others directly harming our health.

The strength smokers possess lies in their sheer numbers. A powerful lobby, one with a vociferous base, and plenty of money. Tobacco companies long ago realized that quarantining smokers via restrictions on public smoking would invariably create an influential perception in the public that smoking was a shunned habit-committed by deviants, an embarrassment, and in need of quarantine. Naturally, the consequences of this perception coupled with the inconvenience of prohibitive public smoking policies would result in declining tobacco consumption rates. Not a good thing for big tobacco.

My speculations regarding the delay in a smoke free Calgary are scant. Perhaps it is a need to maintain a status quo or the need to not upset anybody in election years. Regardless of the motivation the notion that we are being eased into this policy is absurd. We are merely procrastinating the realization of a decision already made. Correspondingly, city hall has brought forth a new doctrine of public policy. Introduce and pass potentially controversial by-laws and then delay in their application, thereby demonstrating noble intentions but utter ineffectuality.

The delay itself borders on folly and there is no justification for it. If it is reasoned that this is an issue of public health, one of substantive concern, then the inaction only suggests we are not really convinced of the harms of second hand smoke. Enough is enough.

Smoking must be seen for what it truly is. It is a behavior, undoubtably harmful, with little appreciable benefit that we have somehow been conditioned to accept. The lobby smokers have numbers and a long history with little restrictions that act as the foundation to a claim of entitlement whose surface is eroding quickly. We should not feel obligated to accept behaviors of others that appreciably affect our health, this is a despicable cop-out, that suggests our cowardice in the process. Our apathy on this subject matter is the dividend smokers bank daily, and until we speak out I see no change on our horizon, until 2008.


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