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Health and the Law, Essay Example

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Essay

As cigarette smoking increasingly becomes legislated and criminalized, it seems to me the nation is moving in a wholly inappropriate direction.  If there was a single lesson to be learned by the great failure of Prohibition in the early 20th century, it is that morality, or choices people make regarding substances, may not be successfully legislated.  The billions spent annually in the “drug war” equally attest to this reality.  It is one thing for a society to generally disapprove of kinds of conduct in which people use control substances.  A culture will inevitably come to conclusions regarding the rightness of such behavior, and this is a natural process.  At the same time, the imposition of these views carrying into the law and actually penalizing others is both unconscionable and unreasonable.  The former is supported by the fact that criminalizing such conduct violates the rights of the individual, who has the freedom to pursue a course potentially dangerous to their health; the lack of reason is in play because, as history has repeatedly shown, such criminalization merely enables black markets and generates other kinds of crime, and usually of more severe natures.

This is not to suggest that minors should not be in some fashion protected from entering into the dangerous habit of smoking.  Similarly, it is reasonable that, as many object to smoke, cigarette smoking be prohibited in closed public spaces like offices, elevators, and restaurants.   Vast evidence does support that secondhand smoke may be dangerous for others (CDC, 2012).  This known, the bans are sensible and reasonable, just as minors should not be legally permitted to buy cigarettes.  Criminalization, however, is a far more active and extreme measure, and it reflects the society as exceeding its authority.  To criminalize smoking extends the practice into a willful act of wrongdoing, and this is a critical distinction.  It is also one, in my estimation, dangerously linked to society’s disapproval as being unjustifiably translated into statute.  The culture is, in a word, going to extremes and crossing the lines between personal and civic responsibility

Connected to this momentum of laws translating societal disapproval unreasonably is how parents are being manipulated or castigated by non-smoking factions.  Society has long had issues in determining when the welfare of children ceases to be the obligation of parents, and when the state may intervene.  When the issue is smoking, legislation is crossing a line here as well.  In 2008 California added a statute imposing a fine of $100 for any adult smoking in a car with a child present (Pampel, 2009,  p. 128), and harsher penalties are being proposed as law.  If these measures are defended as necessary to protect children from parents endangering their health, the question must inevitably arise: when, then, may the state not intervene?  Secondhand smoke is unhealthy for children, but so is a diet of sugars and fats.  Children should not be exposed to smoke, but they should also not be exposed to foods denying them essential nutrition.  What these parallels indicate is that penalizing parents who smoke opens up untold avenues of policing all manner of parenting, which in turn reinforces the inappropriateness of societal and legal interference.  As a nation, we are no longer content to adhere to shared values of personal or parental responsibility, and we are making the serious error of believing that good parenting may be legally enforced.

Ironically, the 1967 anti-smoking commercial would likely enjoy a great response today, in the cultural climate of valuing children.  Since the year that commercial was aired, American society has devoted itself to regarding children as its most precious asset.  The potential issues of undue senses of entitlement as evolving in these children aside, however, there is still no justification for the society in writing and enforcing laws for parents – or for anyone – that marginally address health concerns and more emphatically reflect ethical viewpoints.  Law in these cases is a runaway train, so to speak.  On one level, it is remarkable how the culture never seems to learn that “moral” behavior cannot be legislated.  On another, it will be interesting to see the reactions of anti-smoking factions when the rights as parents they maintain in other areas of child-raising are restricted by laws.

References

Center for Disease Control (CDC).  (2012).  Secondhand Smoke Facts.  Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/general_facts/

Pampel, F. C.  (2009).  Tobacco Industry and Smoking.  New York: Infobase Publishing.

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