Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are our rights going up in smoke?

Oklahoma State University recently announced that it will become a tobacco-free campus as of July 1, 2008, making it the first Big 12 University to carry that distinction.

The policy has become a heated source of debate about the nature and limit of rights. Opponents of the policy have talked about the "rights" of smokers. Advocates of the policy have talked about the dangers of secondhand smoke, pointing out that a person's rights do not allow them to harm the rights of another person.

As an opponent of the policy, I am forced to point out a few issues:

1. The policy deals ONLY with smoking and smokeless tobacco use at least 25 feet from the entrance to a building. In compliance with state law, no smoking is allowed in university buildings or within 25 feet of an entrance or air intake.
2. I have been making the argument that a person is far more likely, in the open air, to inhale toxins and carcinogens far worse than catching a whiff of a passing cloud of secondhand smoke. Now I can prove the claim HERE; compare this with the much-touted 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report which addresses the dangers of indoor secondhand smoke.
3. The real issue here, as it is with all issues pertaining to public health, the effort to create a zero-risk environment, even when this environment is paternalistically enforced. Nowhere is this paternalism more evident than with OSU banning smokeless tobacco -- a form of tobacco use that does harm only to the user.

Also present in the University's statements is the buzzword "wellness." The public health arguments take in this case a familiar shape:

a) You can't let your actions hurt others (because of secondhand smoke)
b) It's for the children (think of all the children and elderly that come on campus)
c) We want to create a culture of wellness (even if it means forcing you to do so), and the kicker:
d) We know what's best for you

What place is there in such a scheme for differences in value? Everyday people use products made in sweatshops, tested on animals, and harmful to others -- but because of a decades-long PR campaign, smoking suddenly has suddenly become an intolerable behavior.

The protection of the non-smoker's rights is, of course, important. The inconvenience of indoor secondhand smoke may have been forgiveable before the toxicity of the smoke had been established. But the protection of rights cuts both ways. There may be no "right to smoke"; but there is a right to be left alone unless your actions directly and seriously harm another person. As a society, we undertake actions everyday that are more harmful to others than a cigarette could ever be. To a degree, these harms are a risk of a free society. But under the growing public health regime, such harms are impermissible. Every authority is legitimate, to the public health warrior, in order to create a zero-risk society.

Please discuss.

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