On any given day, 45 million adult smokers light up despite the known dangers of smoking cigarettes. Americans typically view smoking as an individual choice that needs to be respected just like the myriad of other harmful behaviors society tolerates. Nevertheless, there is strong societal pressure to curb the sale and use of cancer-causing tobacco products.
This raises the question, should the government be able to regulate our unhealthy lifestyle choices? While other decisions of personal health may be left to the individual, in the case of smoking the government has made a popular case that “lighting up” affects others in a unique way. This fundamental argument has been playing out on the national stage in the politics of smoking bans.
The Science of Smoking
In the last twenty-five years, tobacco companies and anti-smoking non-profits alike have educated the general public on the dangers of smoking. Most people are aware that smoking on a regular basis is unhealthy, but popular beliefs about the effects of second-hand smoke are more varied, and for good reason: the public receives mixed information. According to Dr. Cheryl Healton, the CEO and president of the American Legacy Foundation, the parent company of The Truth campaign, about 50,000 Americans die each year due to excess cancer, heart attacks, asthma, low birth weight, and other problems caused by second-hand smoke. Most organizations against smoking regulation disagree. They claim the science behind statements like Healton’s is inconclusive. Many scientific organizations however, are confident in the results. In 2002, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, analyzed most published research concerning tobacco smoking and cancer. One correlation observed in the study was “a statistically significant and consistent association between lung cancer risk in spouses of smokers and exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke from the spouse who smokes.” Proponents of regulation have cited such evidence in calling for a ban against smoking in public places.
In addition to sparing passersby from second-hand smoke, public smoking bans may aid smokers in their quest to quit. Dr. Eric Westman, a nicotine smoking cessation researcher at Duke University, has helped people overcome nicotine addiction for fifteen years. He explains that smoking bans help people quit not only because they make smoking illegal in certain situations, but also because they increase the social stigma of smoking. An internal Phillip Morris document corroborates this observation, finding that individuals who face workplace smoking bans “consume 11 percent to 15 percent less than average and quit at a rate that is 84 percent higher than average.”
Many countries have already instituted wide-ranging prohibitions on public smoking. Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Malta, Italy, and New Zealand have already established countrywide smoke-free laws. France and the United Kingdom are soon to enact their bans. In 2004, the small country of Bhutan went as far as to ban all tobacco sales. The United States however has typically been more skeptical of such legislation and currently only eleven U.S. states have bans on indoor public smoking, though many cities have enacted their own bans.
Saving Smokers from Themselves
While there are strong arguments for regulation of public smoking, consequences for the health of the individual are not necessarily enough to justify legislation. For instance, if bans or heavy regulation were applied to other health-related behaviors, such as overeating, many more people would claim that the government had overstepped its authority. Why is smoking any different? When asked this question, Dr. Healton replied, “obesity does not harm the health of others.” She alludes to a key aspect of bans: they typically only outlaw smoking in public arenas, where one’s decision to smoke inhibits another’s freedom to eschew second hand smoke. Take, for example, the newly-proposed city-wide bans on the use of trans-fats in restaurants, a type of lipid that has been linked to cancer. Trans-fat bans parallel smoking bans in that the government is intervening to curb the effect of the actions of others, whether an individual or a business, on citizens health. However, it is important to note that in these cases the government is only legislating in the public realm: individuals are free to eat what and how much they want, while similarly, smokers can smoke in private areas.
The Future of Smoking Bans
While it can and has been argued that bans on public smoking overextend the government’s power over the private lives of its citizens, strong scientific evidence support the conclusion that allowing individuals to smoke can violate the health of innocent bystanders. In an interview, Dr. Healton predicted, “the global trend will be greater restrictions on where one can smoke.” Across the world, this seems to be coming true, and with increasing regulation, the Marlboro man may soon be off the open plain, and resigned to smoke in the privacy of his own home.