Public smoking ban necessity

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 29, 2002

As we consider laws that would prohibit smoking in public places, we properly take seriously the rights of smokers and the people who operate businesses where smokers like to so their thing. The conflict, however, is not the rights of smokers and businesses as over against the rights of non-smokers, but the health and safety of everyone.

Although the Constitution and American political doctrine have never provided the right to harm oneself, we are characteristically

reluctant to restrict individual freedom. Nonetheless, in the face of clear and present danger, we have been socially responsible and politically bold to place limits on the type of self-inflicted danger to be tolerated. Traffic regulations, for instance, demonstrate that the community respects the lives of individuals more than some people respect their own lives.

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To the senseless person who objects that it is his life and property and he should be able to do with them what he wishes, we say: Not so; if you won't take care of yourself, we'll have to do it. Moreover, as it is also with public smoking, what irresponsible drivers do also affects an unending number of innocent people.

What smokers do to themselves is bad enough, and thus far we are indulging them. But we cannot allow innocent people who have the good sense to care for their health to become involuntary victims.

This paper initially suggested editorially that giving serious consideration to a smoking ban would be wise -- an appropriate thing to do. On second thought, it switched to asserting a smoking ban would be a bad idea because businesses are already over-regulated. This latter observation is quite correct, and legislative bodies need to re-examine laws to ensure regulations are actually necessary. The good achieved must be proportionate to the loss of personal freedom.

Consequent to the editorial switch, the question unavoidably arises: Whose "second thought"? Was it further editorial thinking, as I assume it to be, or was it requested by the paper's advertising department or demanded by the businesses that purchase advertising space? The paper has thus burdened itself to project its journalistic integrity to an unusual degree.

Contributing in this direction is the paper's fairness and generosity in publishing full expressions of disagreement with its editorial position. I feel the case presented by former State Senator Pat Piper is especially compelling. There is no stifling of opinion in these pages.

The plea by experienced and respected local physicians runs counter to the argument raised by some businesses. The latter fear a smoking ban lest it reduce their business, while the former promote the ban even though smoking gives them a large portion of their "business." I wouldn't suggest the business people are entirely unconcerned about the health of their customers and employees, but they don't seem to be thinking much about it. I have yet to see statistical evidence that a smoking ban actually hurts business -- and I should have expected any that might exist to be presented by this time by those who insist this is so.

The city council is correct that it would be easier and more effective if a smoking ban were statewide. However, timidity in exercising leadership is the way to prevent it from becoming statewide. Olmsted has shown leadership, and the state needs Austin and Mower to stand with it for the sake of the entire state.

The question of a smoking ban in most public places just is not an issue of human rights or business opportunity. It's a matter of life and death.

Wallace Alcorn's column appears on Mondays.