Even as divisiveness marks the imposition of smoking bans in public places, there nonetheless may be seen a trajectory of cooperation occurring. Initially, the prohibition of cigarette smoking in public arenas took on political aspects; smokers felt that their rights were being violated, which in turn generated antipathy to non-smokers. This adversarial element remains to an extent, but the simple course of time passing and the increasing acceptance of the bans themselves have served to reinforce the crux of the matter, which has never been political at all; namely, that exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS) is dangerous, and that no individual has the right to impose their potentially harmful habit on another. Employing restaurants as a kind of template, the following will reveal that, once all points are comprehended by each side of the issue, bans on smoking in public deny rights to no one, present only minimal inconvenience to smokers, and are essential for preserving standards going to the public good.
There can be no reasonable examination of the debate surrounding the subject without a sense of the cultural impact and presence of cigarette smoking. That opponents of bans perceive smoking to be a right, in fact, is by no means an invalid view. In plain terms, and until relatively recently, smoking has been embedded within the culture as inextricably associated with maturity, sophistication, and a variety of other, significant attachments. In the 1920s, for example, smoking was identified with the “new woman”; as women asserted independence, the cigarette symbolized this confidence and empowerment (Blaszczyk 189). Throughout the 20th century, and the influences of marketing notwithstanding, cigarettes were alternately badges of rebellion, masculinity, individuality, and elegance. One need only view films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to appreciate how smoking was more than a habit. It was the mark of adulthood, and one also profoundly associated with attractiveness. This ongoing tide of cultural reinforcement, then, both obfuscated the increasing awareness of smoking as unhealthy and emphasized it as a right, if only by virtue of its commonality. Consequently, even the “healthy” environment of the restaurant was nothing more than another arena in which this “right” could be exercised, a circumstance certainly abetted by the cultural connection between smoking and drinking alcohol in bars.
The perception of smoking as a right, however, if understandable, is revealed as nothing more than a perception when the realities of SHS are known. The rationale is basic; as information confirms that a practice endangers others, the actual identity of the practice is altered. In the case of smoking, the information is such that there is as well the complete shattering of the illusory aspect of “right.” A parallel, in fact, may be made between smoking, and drinking and driving. To drink and drive was long perceived as a right because driving itself was viewed as such, but the social need to address the deaths caused by drunk driving have served to emphasize that driving itself is a licensed privilege. Smokers, like drinkers, do indeed have the right to indulge their habits, and no non-smoker has the right to dictate such choices. No such choice, however, may be extended in any way that endangers others, be it the cigarette or the drinks consumed before driving. This goes to the essential structure of any society in which the basic rights of all must outweigh inclinations of the individual.
It is regrettable that opponents of smoking bans tend to view the prohibitions only in terms of them as restrictions on smokers (Debate.org), because this narrow assessment ignores the larger, and more imperative, reality. Bans on smoking in restaurants, for example, are not about denying personal choice or freedom at all; rather, they exist to protect those who have made other choices. Then, there is the argument that compelling the restaurant owner to ban smoking violates that person’s right to conduct business (Debate.org). This reasoning is specious at best. Even a militant smoker would agree that the restaurant owner has no right to operate a dining room in which they knowingly serve tainted food, for the risks to the customers clearly eclipse the owner’s prerogatives. The same rationale holds to smoking in the restaurant, simply because the evidence of harmful SHS effects is incontrovertible. In no uncertain terms, and as confirmed by extensive research, SHS poses very real threats to non-smokers. The World Health Organization’s findings reveal that, in 2004, SHS was responsible for 603,000 deaths and millions of ongoing infirmities and severe health issues worldwide. The same report reveals the insidious, if not unexpected, aspect of children as being particularly vulnerable to respiratory and cardiac illnesses due to SHS (Oberg et al).
It is frequently supposed that, in regard to indoor spaces such as restaurants, the solution is simple: maintain separate areas for smokers and non-smokers, and take measures to better ventilate these spaces. Research, however, strongly goes to these measures as ineffective (CDC). These efforts, likely generated by both sides of the debate eager to responsibly accommodate one another, do not address the pivotal issue, which is that of protecting non-smokers in a way that is genuinely impactful. On the other hand, the evidence reveals that smoking bans in public spaces have been remarkably effective; the harmful nicotine by-product of cotinine was identified at measurable levels in 87.9 percent of non-smokers in 1988-1991, and the percentage dropped by more than half by 2007 (CDC). Exposure to SHS persists, of course, and much of this occurs in the home. It is arguable or foreseeable that, as the tides of research increase, legislation may be devised to police this practice in the home as a threat to the well-being of children. That, however, is a debate for another day; what must be acknowledged by smokers today is the basic reality of bans in restaurants and other public places as, not unconstitutional or unethical violations of rights, but as policies in place based upon scientific evidence and implemented to safeguard the health of society in general.
Lastly, and in particular regard to restaurant settings and smokers’ resistance to bans, it is interesting to note that the conflict seems to lessen only through increased familiarity with the prohibitions. An international study focusing on smoking bans in bars and restaurants found that the actual, ongoing existence of the bans serves to promote acceptance from smokers: Support increases from smokers in areas where the bans are, in fact, uniformly applied: “Once people understand the rationale for implementing smoke-free policies… public support increases even among smokers, and compliance with smoke-free regulations increases over time” (Hyland et al). From this it may be inferred that a great deal of the resistance to the bans is due, not so much from a determination to uphold “rights,” but from the shifting of the traditional rules and values as parts of the culture. Given the lengthy and powerful presence of smoking in most cultures, that such changes in perception require some time is all the more reasonable. More to the point, these changes in viewpoint indicate that the gulf between the non-smoker and the smoker is by no means as fixed as was once supposed, or even intimated by the initial resistance.
Returning to the setting of the restaurant, there is here the closed space in which people gather for recreational purposes, as each individual within the space is assured certain freedoms. They comprehend that they are safe from danger because the laws and policies in place bring this assurance, as they understand as well that they have the right to make choices going to individual preferences. The restaurant is, then, the society in miniature. True to this model, no choice may be made which creates risk for the others present, and this is the simple reality of smoking bans. The evidence of the risks from SHS is irrefutable, so the smoker is obliged to extend the protections and rights they demand for themselves to others. No one is as yet denying the smoker the opportunity to indulge in the habit in secluded, outdoor spaces or the home; all that is mandated here is the necessary societal mechanism of seeing to the welfare of all. As smokers come to truly appreciate this non-invasive and rational approach, it is likely that the debate regarding smoking bans in public faces will fade, just as the symbolic associations with smoking have lessened with increased knowledge of the facts.
Blaszczyk, R. L. Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Print.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking and Tobacco Use: Secondhand Smoke (SHS) Facts. 2013. Web. <http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/>
Debate.org History and Debate of Smoking Ban. 2013, Web. <http://www.debate.org/tobacco-rights/>
Hyland, A, Higbee, C., Borland, R., Travers, M., Hastings, G., , Fong, G. T., & Cummings, K. M. “Attitudes and beliefs about secondhand smoke and smoke-free policies in four countries: findings from the International Tobacco Control Four Country Survey.” Nicotine &Tobacco Research 11.6 (2009): 642-649. Web. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2688606/
Oberg, M., Jaakkola, M., Woodward, A., Pergua, A., & Pruss-Ustun, A. Worldwide burden of disease from exposure to second-hand smoke: a retrospective analysis of data from 192 countries. World Health Organization, 2010. Web.<http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/publications/smoking.pdf>