Jewish World Review June 18, 2003 / 18 Sivan, 5763
Robert W. Tracinski
The Hazards of a Smoke-Free Environment
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | An epidemic of local smoking bans has spread across the nation--in 25 states from Arizona to Maine to Oregon--under the pretense of protecting people from the alleged threat of "second-hand" smoke. But the bans themselves are symptoms of a far more grievous threat, a cancer that has been spreading for decades and has now metastasized throughout the body politic, spreading even to the tiniest organs of local government.
This cancer is the only real hazard involved--the cancer of unlimited government power.
The issue is not whether second-hand smoke is a real danger or a phantom menace, as a study published recently in the British Medical Journal indicates. The issue is: if it were harmful, what would be the proper reaction? Should anti-tobacco activists satisfy themselves with educating people about the potential danger and allowing them to make their own decisions--or should they seize the power of government and force people to make the "right" decision?
Supporters of local tobacco bans have made their choice. Rather than attempting to protect people from an unwanted intrusion on their health, the tobacco bans are the unwanted intrusion. Loudly billed as measures that only affect "public places," they have actually targeted private places: restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, and offices--places whose owners are free to set anti-smoking rules or whose customers are free to go elsewhere if they don't like the smoke. Some local bans even harass smokers in places where their effect on others is obviously negligible, such as outdoor public parks.
The decision to smoke, or to avoid "second-hand" smoke, is a question to be answered by each individual based on his own values and his own assessment of the risks. This is the same kind of decision free people make regarding every aspect of their lives: how much to spend or invest, whom to befriend or sleep with, whether to go to college or get a job, whether to get married or divorced, and so on. All of these decisions involve risks; some have demonstrably harmful consequences; most are controversial and invite disapproval from the neighbors. But the individual must be free to make these decisions. He must be free, because his life belongs to him--not to his neighbors--and only his own judgment can guide him through it.
Yet when it comes to smoking, this freedom is under attack. Cigarette smokers are a numerical minority, practicing a habit considered annoying and unpleasant to the majority. So the majority has simply commandeered the power of government and used it to dictate their behavior.
That is why these bans are far more threatening than the prospect of inhaling a few stray whiffs of tobacco while waiting for a table at your favorite restaurant. The anti-tobacco crusaders point in exaggerated alarm at those wisps of smoke--while they unleash the systematic and unlimited intrusion of government into our lives.
The tobacco bans are just part of one prong of this assault. Traditionally, the right has attempted to override the individual's judgment on spiritual matters: outlawing certain sexual practices, trying to ban sex and violence in entertainment, discouraging divorce. While the left is nominally opposed to this trend--denouncing attempts to "legislate morality" and crusading for the toleration of "alternative lifestyles"--they seek to override the individual's judgment on material matters: imposing controls on business and profit-making, regulating advertising and campaign finance, and now legislating healthy behavior.
But the difference is only one of emphasis; the underlying premise is still anti-freedom and anti-individual-judgment. The tobacco bans bulldoze all the barriers to intrusive regulation, establishing the precedent that the rights of the individual can be violated whenever the local city council decides that the "public good" demands it.
Ayn Rand described the effect of this two-pronged assault on liberty: "The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles or factories--with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul free-wheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe--but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread"--or, today, when he crosses the street to buy a cigarette.
It doesn't take a new statistical study to show that such an attack on freedom is inimical to human life. No crusade to purge our air of any whiff of tobacco smoke can take precedence over a much more important human requirement: the need for the unbreached protection of individual rights.
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