Monday, May 28, 2007

Commentary: When Is A Ban Not A Ban?

Allegheny County’s smoking ban has been on-again, off-again so many times we’ve all lost count. I’m not surprised by this legal seesaw; I’m actually amazed it hasn’t happened before now. If we are to make any sense of this smoking conundrum, we’re going to have to get back to basics. “Basics” in this case would appear to be pretty darned basic: Should people be exposed to a harmful substance against their will?

Ah, such a seemingly simple, straight-forward question in reality fraught with all sorts of complications. These complications exist because we’ve allowed our legal definitions to become muddy and the application of our laws to become anything but consistent.

The plain and simple truth is that at this time tobacco is a legal substance. It is not contraband, it is not even regulated by physician prescription. Nope, it’s perfectly legal, and as such, it’s no wonder we’re having a hard time banning its use.

Since we are only human, the laws we enact will never be worded or crafted perfectly enough to mete out justice for all people all of the time. But since we can’t seem to accept these inevitable shortcomings, we erroneously reason that if we pepper our laws with enough exceptions, if we “loosen” our definitions and “broaden our perspective” we can limit the injustice of our system. We think if we compromise enough, we might even find a way to make most everyone happy. While this strategy might succeed up to a certain point, carrying it past that point just produces confusion and a battery of unenforceable laws. Ergo the tobacco conundrum.

Simply put, if occasional exposure to second-hand smoke is harmful enough to cause significant risk to a person’s health, then first-hand usage by the smoker must be deadly. Since the willful taking of one’s own life is not legal, why are cigarettes legal? Non-smokers, trying to “compromise”, argue that the smoker has a right to “harm himself if he wants”, but has no right to harm other people. Is that true? Do people in this country have the right to knowingly harm themselves to the point of causing their own death? Smokers, also jockeying for a compromise, promise they will only do so in “special places” where other like-minded persons are also harming/killing themselves. Or, if smoking becomes banned in public places, exceptions would be made for small neighborhood bars where not much food is served. Are we therefore saying since those people are already drinking themselves to death, adding smoke is not that big of a deal? How about the illogical exception made for casinos? Since those people are already throwing their money away should they also have the “right” to throw their lives away?

The inconsistent basic premise and accompanying battery of twisted logic “compromises” have come into being not out of respect for the greater liberty of the masses, but undoubtedly have persisted to protect the existence of the tobacco industry. And believe it or not, this decades-long grappling with the problem is warranted. Great care should always be exercised before killing off an entire industry.

But we have arrived at exactly that juncture in this legal challenge. Impartial testing can and must be done to find out, once and for all, how noxious this habit really is. The series of tests conducted on behalf of proponents and opponents alike are riddled with questionable methods and assumptions. If thorough, properly conducted testing concludes that tobacco kills as often as its detractors say it does, and if this country proceeds upon the legal path that an individual does not have the right to take his own life, then tobacco should be completely banned as with heroin or opium.

If it turns out tobacco is not the near-guaranteed death sentence its detractors profess it is, if the risk associated with second-hand smoke is no greater than breathing air while being stuck in the Ft Pitt Tunnel during rush hour or Steeler game back-ups, then individual liberty and the free market must prevail. The last time I checked, dining out without the annoyance of having to smell unpleasant odors is not one of our inalienable rights.

For the record, Ms. Pist is a life-long non-smoker who does not want her health to be assaulted. But short of that threshold, Ms. Pist is not interested in compelling others to adhere to her “lifestyle choices” or diminishing the liberty of others so that her dining experience can be maximized. We need to get to the scientific bottom of the smoking argument and then let the chips fall where they may.


EdHeath said...

What struck me in your post was that you acknowledged the libertarian argument only at the end of your post. You know we have that big history of if you can’t prove its harming anyone else then get off my back. I don’t know how much weight it carries with the general public, but if you check out the blog Antirust you will see libertarianism in all its glory, at least as far as the smoking ban goes. But I suspect lawmakers, who are the crucial element here, are swayed far more by tobacco lobby money than by vague voter public health concerns or libertarian arguments. Lawmakers usually adopt what ever justification they need to support whatever they have already decided to do (ah, so young and yet so cynical). As far as I know there are only a couple of health studies on the books, so to speak, on smoking bans, and they are from smaller cities, and thus seem vulnerable to charges of being statistical aberrations. The study from Helena, Montana is interesting because the ban only lasted six months, and you could see sudden deaths from cardiac arrests go down and then go back up. But we should start to see larger studies, right? New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia all have bans, I think. So we should start to see some definitive information. Still, look for the libertarians and smokers to hold out to the bitter end. After all, it should be a no-brainer to wear a motorcycle or bike helmet, and yet, what does Pennsylvania’s law say? (er, pardon the pun)

Skip said...

Scientific bottoms:

Char, the CDC factsheet summarizes the data on health risks from second-hand smoke. Reference #2 on the list is particularly interesting.
There was some major study published late last year (but can't find the source now) accounting for excess mortality related to second-hand smoke. It was in the thousands, like 5-6 thousand, if I remember correctly.
Sad thing is that this is a sexy issue because it has moral tones. To place the issue in context, how much morbidity/mortality is 'caused' by violence in the US? Think there is much political will to stem it or to attend to the research on it? My concern lies with the priorities in this county/country. Not necessarily for or against smoking bans.

SirFuller said...

It's all about the taxes. The government makes a load of money off of cigarette sales, which is why there is no clear movement to ban them.

As they say "money makes the world go round" and in this case, it is keeping cigarettes legal.