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The Right To Smoke In Public Places? No Such Thing!

Mal Fletcher
Posted 20 September 2004
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The right to smoke anywhere at anytime? Give me a break -- there's no such thing.

A week ago, one of Europe's largest cigarette manufacturers admitted that its sales had fallen dramatically. Pundits blamed the Irish ban on smoking in restaurants and pubs.

Yet visiting northern Europe again last week, I was reminded of just how slowly Europe is moving forward in the area of non-smoker's rights.

My wife and I visited a restaurant where we were offered a non-smoking table. This came as a pleasant surprise, as most restaurants in the north are not interested in the needs (or the taste buds) of non-smokers.

Sadly, when we got to our non-smoker's table we found it was in a small and dark corner of the restaurant and was so cramped that we couldn't have eaten properly unless we were happy to share the conversation -- and the elbow room -- with the people at the next table and the one behind us. So, we left.

Smoking in confined public spaces is already outlawed in places like Australia and the government in Ireland recently made smoking in its pubs and restaurants illegal. Other authorities are looking at similar legislation.

Sadly, most of Europe is lagging way behind. It seems that many people here still think of smoking as an exercise of their right to exercise autonomy.

Now, we hear a lot today about human rights and most of the discussion is very helpful and much needed in our often cruel and unjust world. Sometimes, though, the discussion goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The claim that smoking in confined public places is a basic human right falls into the latter category.

The right to smoke anywhere at any time should more correctly be called 'the right to kill myself slowly and take as many others with me as possible when I go.'

All individual rights are circumscribed by human responsibilities, particularly our responsibility to other people and to our environment. Every right of the individual must be weighed up against the welfare of the majority of people and the environment we share.

Despite the protests of the I'll-smoke-where-I-want-to brigade, the evidence is mounting: so-called 'passive smoking' kills.

With passive smoking, the non-smoker breathes 'sidestream' smoke from the burning tip of the cigarette and 'mainstream' smoke that's been inhaled and then exhaled by the smoker.

The Action on Smoking and Health web newsletter (June 2004), notes that the immediate effects of passive smoking include 'eye irritation, headache, cough, sore throat, dizziness and nausea.'

'Adults with asthma can experience a significant decline in lung function when exposed,' it says, 'while new cases of asthma may be induced in children whose parents smoke. Short term exposure to tobacco smoke also has a measurable effect on the heart in non-smokers. Just 30 minutes exposure is enough to reduce coronary blood flow.'

Citing several studies it goes on: 'In the longer term, passive smokers suffer an increased risk of a range of smoking-related diseases. Non-smokers who are exposed to passive smoking in the home, have a 25 per cent increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer.' [1]

The British Medical Journal has suggested that the risk of heart disease from passive smoking have been underestimated in many studies. Researchers working on the Journal's own research found that blood cotinine levels among non-smokers were associated with a 50 to 60 percent increase in the risk of heart disease. [2]

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found that 'the evidence is sufficient to conclude that involuntary smoking is a cause of lung cancer in never smokers.' [3]

The British Medical Association has conservatively estimated that at least 1000 people a year die from the effects of passive smoking, in the UK alone. How many more are affected in Europe as a whole?

The issue of non-smoking in confined spaces is not just about individual taste, it is about the public good.

If the logic of the smoking-anywhere lobby was applied across the board, graffiti artists should be able to spray their messages wherever they please: on buses, trains, walls, anywhere. To prevent them from doing so would be to impinge on their right to self-expression.

We don't allow people to vandalize public property simply because there is a larger interest to consider. The public has a right to know that the property it pays for will not be abused, destroyed or defaced by others.

So, we might ask the smoking-anywhere lobby, if it's wrong to vandalize my buses why is it OK to vandalize my body?

This issue is also about a recognition of the fundamental truths on which human rights are founded.

Through the centuries, much of our thinking about human rights has been influenced by the teachings of Christianity. According to the Christian worldview, human rights are not arbitrary standards applied at the whim of governments or democratic votes.

Human rights were given to us by God at the time of our creation.

In fact, the Ten Commandments upon which much of our basic laws are predicated, are really descriptions and applications of human rights. God declares that human life is sacred – so murder is an offence. Private property should remain private -- so stealing is an offence. People have a right to justice -- so bearing false witness against someone is an offence. And so on.

In the Christian worldview, there is no right to end one's own life, much less the lives of others. Life itself is a gift -- the greatest gift of all. My life is entrusted to me: I don't own my life, I am the steward, the caretaker of its enormous potential.

To destroy that precious gift is an offence against my life and against the One who entrusted it to me. To destroy the lives of others through my own selfish pursuits is also offensive.

Despite protests from some smokers, the Irish experience shows that the only people who suffer when there are no-go laws for smoking are the cigarette manufacturers -- and there aren't too many people who will lose sleep over that!

Hopefully, it won't be long in Europe before we can venture into public restaurants and other buildings to work, eat, talk and breathe in comfort, exercising our right to life itself.

© Mal Fletcher 2004
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