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Home News Articles A need to kick the no-smoking habit

A need to kick the no-smoking habit

By | on Apr 22 2014

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Isolating people – boxing them, quite literally, into a lonely corner – seems like an unorthodox way to tackle a public health problem; but that’s the road government is taking when it comes to smoking.

Oh boohoo, you say. So smokers can’t light up on restaurant patios anymore, or smoke on beaches or in public parks or on sports fields or…well, pretty much anywhere except their own homes and cars, if all-encompassing public-smoking bans like the one set to take effect in Victoria, B.C., go through. If smokers don’t like the punitive and confining restrictions, they can just quit smoking. It’s really their own problem for having such a dirty habit in the first place.

That, as far as I can tell, is the thinking behind initiatives such as Victoria’s, which will not only effectively prevent people from having a smoke while strolling down the sidewalk (no smoking within seven meters of a window, door or air intake, please), but will also have the ludicrous consequence of banning a hiker sitting alone on a quiet hillside from indulging in a pipe in the middle of a vast wilderness park.

“The idea that someone would be subject to a fine for smoking a cigarette on the top of a distant mountaintop makes no sense to me,” City of Victoria councillor Ben Isitt told the National Post Monday.

And he’s right about that. There’s simply no sense to giving anti-smoking laws such broad reach if the goal is what government makes it out to be: protecting innocent bystanders from the negative health consequences of second-hand smoke.

But do we really believe that’s the objective? To prevent a smoker from harming others with his choice to smoke? That’s what the powers that be say. Over the weekend, Victoria medical health officer Dr. Murray Fyfe told the Times-Colonist, “The primary purpose of [this change] is to protect people from secondhand smoke….”

That raises the question, though, of why Dr. Fyfe is so opposed to the idea of creating legal smoking zones where smokers could have their cigarettes without affecting non-smokers’ health and well-being. Surely such zones would advance the stated cause of protecting others. And why did Dr. Fyfe feel the need to emphasize that the purpose of the change in Victoria’s law is “not to accommodate those people who want to smoke.” The answer is obvious: Because the real goal here, as with most public-smoking bans, is to stop people from smoking period. Full-stop.

But the government and public health establishment realize that declaring a legal ban on a voluntary activity that is not directly harming others is still considered a bit much by many (though sadly not most) Canadians. So they couch their motivation in terms of protecting the innocent from potentially deadly effects. And then they hope no one notices when their actions focus less on safeguarding the defenseless non-smokers and more on beating the guilty smokers into submission.

The problem is that sometimes people do notice; as has been the case in Victoria, where some sensible city councillors are pointing out that it’s surely possible to protect non-smokers without making life completely unworkable for smokers who 1) may be addicted to nicotine (rather than just pigheadedly maintaining an annoying habit), and 2) are using what remains a legal substance.

It is one thing to say that government has an interest in encouraging its citizens to lead a healthy lifestyle, but quite another to allow it to effectively ban unhealthy choices, particularly in a realm where it happily collects significant tax revenues from those very same unhealthy decisions.

The idea that the state will actually help an individual become healthier through punitive legislation is also a suspect one. Those who want to quit smoking (or, for that matter, lose a significant amount of weight) are rarely encouraged toward their goal by being made to feel like pariahs. I don’t think it’s the government’s place to be offering education and counselling on smoking cessation (or changing eating and exercise patterns). However, if government must involve itself in these areas, optional education and counselling would be far preferable to outright bans that only increase the targets’ stress levels and feelings of desolation, in addition to violating their autonomy.

Like many problems, this one could have been headed off earlier if more respect had been paid to private property rights. We could have let private club and restaurant owners make their own decisions about whether or not to welcome smokers, and details about how to do so. Then the government’s decisions about smoking in outdoor public spaces, while still important, would have been of less immediate consequence to people just hoping to relax with a beer and a cigarette on a Friday night.

Instead, we made smoking illegal even in private bars, clubs and restaurants, regardless of the owners’ wishes. As a result, when government got it into its head that it would take its smoking bans to the parks, beaches, sidewalks and even wilderness trails of our cities, smokers found themselves boxed into the literal corners of their own homes or cars (assuming they owned any).

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This is not a proportional or measured response to the problem of secondhand smoke. It’s evidence of the government and public health establishment’s ambitions to move beyond protecting non-smokers from smokers and on to protecting smokers from themselves.

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