There is a point where legislation slips from being a useful, if sometimes cumbersome, tool for achieving an orderly, well-functioning society into a meddlesome mess of nanny statism and absurd zealotry. Most of us can sense it easily when it effects us and impedes our lives. It is a little harder to appreciate when the zealotry is something that benefits you; that you might agree with, at least in part. Such is the proposed piece of legislation banning smoking from Auckland’s public open-air places.
I approve of most of the current anti-smoking legislation. Stopping smoking in enclosed public places and restaurants has been a God-send to non-smokers. I well recall the days of being allocated a “non-smoking” table in a restaurant that was inches away from the “smoking area” – an area commonly in the place most likely to trap smoke in the building. I have had to sit a mere couple of feet away from a chain-smoker who alternated between his cigarettes and his asthma inhaler. But the enhancement of my restaurant pleasure is not the reason why I approve of this particular smoking ban – it is because there is ample evidence linking the inhalation of second-hand smoke, in enclosed spaces, with both lung cancer and emphysema.
Similarly, I have no problem with raising the price of tobacco to deter smokers. Again there is excellent evidence that tobacco is indeed price sensitive and thus a higher price will lead to less smoking. I accept that this will likely have a disproportionate effect on the poor, but this is not necessarily a bad thing as the poor are also disproportionally effected by the deleterious health effects of smoking. The government has thrown lashings of money into smoking cessation – there must be at least a dozen fully funded (i.e. free) ways to quit the habit – so one can only assume that those who still smoke choose to do so. I have no particular drive to question this choice – if someone wishes to get their jollies puffing away on smoldering tobacco so be it. Just so long as they do not claim “poverty” while burning through $200-$300 a month. Or worse, claim “child poverty”.
Both of these interventions are driven by reasonably good evidence. However, there is no evidence at all that the minimal amount of second hand smoke experienced by non-smokers in the open air is detrimental in any way whatsoever. One must therefore conclude that this proposed piece of legislation is therefore being propelled by zealotry rather than reason. One must also conclude that the legislation is social engineering rather than preventative health. It is popular with the non-smoking public not because outdoor smoking is a health issue, but because it is bad manners.
No non-smoker likes to have smoke blown at him in a bus queue or on a train platform. No-one like to wade through a miasma of spent smoke when trying to leave a building – through a crowd of desperate smokers clustered under the overhang. Sit down to picnic in a public park and it won’t be long before you catch the faint traces of stale smoke wafting on the breeze. Yet, as annoying as these things may be to us of pure lung and working sinuses, there is no evidence that this is an assault on our health like the non-smoking tables in restaurants.
It would be nice if our fellow humans who occasionally like to breath burning paper would show a little consideration and restrict their smoking to some remote island off our coast or, preferably, quit, but people are entitled to strange habits as long as they are not inflicting harm. Indeed, it is likely that if we restrict their smoking to their domicile, it is likely that the biggest suffers in health terms will be the children trapped in the houses and cars with the chimneys.
I am all for tightening the smoking screws if it can be shown that it is necessary for the public’s health, but just sweeping the smoker into an ever decreasing corner of his/her world is not helpful, merely meddlesome.