The Smoking Debate

By Raywat Deonandan | December 19, 2001

Many North American cities, including Toronto, have adopted a universal no-smoking policy in all public places. The debate thus ensues between public health enthusiasts and those who would use totalitarian allusions to characterize the imposition, major newspapers and civil liberties activists among them.

As an epidemiologist, I feel my position to be based as much on hard data as on ideology: cigarette smoke is a health hazard that cannot be contained in a public eating venue. All citizens, the public health platform goes, have the right to a healthy environment, and smoking violates that right for both smokers and non-smokers alike. Whether my insistence is founded upon a sincere belief in the health statistics, blind loyalty to my profession, a personal dislike of second-hand smoke or indeed upon a misguided sense of totalitarian liberal ideology is admittedly uncertain.

Perhaps an over-familiarity with lung cancer rates and other tobacco-mediated disorders compels me to accept an Orwellian government intrusion where one is not necessitated. In a society rife with rumours of conspiracy, both governmental and corporate, there is a natural fear of both the powers of tobacco lobbyists and of the Machiavellian designs of an overly paternal state. The balance to be struck is often determined by one’s profession and by anecdotal personal experience.
As a member of a health-based profession, then, am I blinded to the dangers of restricting an otherwise legal substance?

The opposing argument has tended to be one of practicality pitted against this perceived policy of "liberal ideology gone mad." The financial plight of the poor restaurateur, forced into receivership by the absence of cash-dispensing smokers, is the favourite example oft quoted. Furthermore, there is no doubt that tobacco represents a major economic foundation of Ontario: its farmers dominate the southwestern agricultural belt; its marketers provide substantial remuneration to other industries via advertising and sponsorship, and its taxation pays for many important social pillars, such as education and even health care. Such an argument is further spiced with an abhorrence of any government control over our bodies, and a subsequent indignance over draconian measures to control the usage of any legal substance.

"If it’s a legally sanctioned product," the detractors contend, "why can’t we use it publicly? And why must the government insist on protecting us from ourselves?"

As a society, however, we have accepted that it’s possible to legitimize the manufacture, sale and use of a substance, yet restrict its pattern of use. Codeine is an accepted pain killer, for example, yet it is an actionable offence to operate certain machinery while under the drug’s influence. Alcohol is an obvious example, advertised ad nauseam but sold only to adults at licenced venues. And a slew of prescription drugs are legally and socially acceptable, but require a doctor’s note to obtain.

Why should tobacco incite such passion and, dare I say it, vitriol? A clichéd answer is that the tobacco industry has subtly influenced us into believing the cigarette to be a lifestyle choice, maybe even a personal declaration of independence from the external authority that now attempts to eliminate it. Indeed, a corollary to the anti-control argument is a refusal to let the bureaucratic machine dictate the internal goings-on of our bodies.

But the government already exercises subtle control over our bodies, and we, as a society, applaud that control. It is illegal, for example, to inject heroin into our veins, to commit suicide and to sell our internal organs. Few would argue that these laws are without merit. A civil liberties argument against the smoking ban is therefore purist ideology, not necessarily born of pragmatism. And when disagreements are founded upon elementally conflicting doctrines or ideologies, no amount of arguing or debate will result in reconciliation.

What is needed, then, is hard data. No one, except maybe tobacco lobbyists, can doubt the deleterious effects of cigarette smoke on personal and public health. But any conjecture on the economic or public morale implications of the smoking ban is mere speculation, not founded upon available facts. When passions are incensed by ideological and professional conflict, prudence and science are perhaps not the most emotionally satisfying of solutions.

695 w. December 19, 2001


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