It is extraordinary to see how smoking has evolved in the culture into a barometer of personal freedoms, and consequently a measurement of how far a society may go in dictating behavior. The trajectory is striking; only decades earlier, smoking was unquestioned as a personal preference and as something of a marker of adulthood. Today, it is not only socially ostracized, it is illegal in a wide variety of public venues, and this turnaround appears to have been generated by the mounting evidence of smoking’s harmful effects. More importantly, the issue of secondhand smoke has been allowed to expand the thinking from a potentially unwarranted interference with a person’s choice to a societal norm. If some always found cigarette smoke offensive, they are now equipped with the data supporting that it is dangerous to them. In short order, then, the practice has been vastly curtailed, with the ancillary cultural disapproval attached to it. It very much seems today that smoking is, some resistance notwithstanding, gradually being eliminated from the culture entirely.
That lingering resistance, however, is important. It exists as a necessary societal alert of a kind, because it illustrates just how precariously society moves in certain directions. On one level, and given the immense evidence of the risks of secondhand smoke, it is difficult to argue with laws banning smoking in public places. Mill makes a very powerful case for society limiting an individual’s personal liberty only when that liberty poses a risk of harm to others, and it is relevant here; the people collectively must be protected for the society to be valid. Adding weight to this imperative is that smoking is essentially a recreational habit, done only to give pleasure to the smoker. When the “right” to indulge in a pleasurable activity confronts potential harm to others, that right is utterly eviscerated. Many smokers resent the legal bans because they affirm that they would never smoke in an arena in which it bothered or reached others, but the unfortunate fact remains that such consideration is not true of all, and the mandate of the people must be more highly regarded. In a sense, then, the non-smoking laws exist as a legislating of morality or decency, fueled by actual health concerns.
On another level, however, there is an insidious aspect to the tide of anti-smoking fervor, and it resides in the general disfavor expressed by the public, which is all the more reinforced by the laws. More exactly, as smoking has been banned to protect non-smokers, there is a growing sense of entitlement in condemning the habit regardless of external effects. A strange fusion of morality and rational thinking evolves, in that the widespread disapproval is allowed to take a personal stance. It is not only permitted today to condemn smoking as it affects others, but as it affects the individual who chooses to smoke. This is occurring, of course, outside of the law, but the effects are potent. It seems that a shift arises wherein the public feels itself empowered to dictate to the individual, and this is dangerous ground. The dictates are at least ostensibly “for the good” of the smoker, but that is a specious foundation at best. Taken to an extreme, the same public may one day believe it has the right to prevent individuals from eating fatty foods, simply because the judging process is the same; it is bad for health so no individual should be able to make that choice. This is, in a word, unconscionable because no society is so entitled to exercise such authority over personal behaviors that do not threaten it.
Essentially, it appears that society faces a danger regarding smoking having nothing to do with smoke. It embraces its right to protect itself against those smokers who would not be mindful of others’ interests, and this is a rational and right course. The massive tides of outright condemnation of smokers, however, are as unjust as the laws banning smoking in restaurants are correct. Today’s culture is not merely protecting itself; it is demonizing smokers, and doing so empowered by a sense of what is healthy, which then is allowed to translate to a right to morally dictate. This means that the smoke is no longer the enemy, but the smoker is, and this is a treacherous landscape for a free society because such universal entitlement may well generate laws violating personal liberties. It is the unacceptable transitioning of morality into policy that has so greatly damaged societies in the past, and it is a thing to be avoided at all costs. Those thinking this an unreasonable concern need only consider the new soft drink laws in New York, in place to curtail the intake of large amounts of sugar. There will then come the understanding that concerns for the health of others must never be confused with concerns for the health of all. The latter demands response, but the former has no such rights.