Monday, November 26, 2007

Op-Ed Argues that Smokers Shouldn't Have Children, Advocates Using the Force of Law to Make Sure

An op-ed column by social commentator Rita Panahi published on November 6 in the Herald-Sun (Australia's leading daily newspaper) argues that smokers - like criminals, junkies, the violent, and the insane - should not have children. She equates smoking around children to child abuse and calls for laws that would prohibit smoking during pregnancy. She also calls for legislation that would mandate cotinine testing of pregnant women and deny government benefits to those found to have smoked during pregnancy.

Panahi writes: "Let's be honest, some people just shouldn't have kids. Criminals, junkies, the violent, the insane and smokers. Yes, smokers. They are a hazard not only to themselves but to the poor kids who are unfortunate enough to have them as parents. If an adult with the full knowledge of the dangers of smoking chooses to inhale cancer causing toxins then that's their business but they have no right to expose unwilling children to their filthy habit. Certainly, a woman who smokes while pregnant is not worthy of having children let alone receiving a generous government grant for every nicotine-addicted baby she brings in to this world." ...

"It's easy to make a case against violent, unstable types having kids, yet latest research shows that smokers also pose an imminent danger to their offspring... ." ...

"If that fact alone isn't enough to persuade selfish mums-to-be to butt out their final cigarette, then nothing will, short of legislation banning them from using nicotine-based products. Such a ban would be difficult to enforce but the clear message it sends - that smoking while pregnant is tantamount to child abuse - would hopefully shame a few more women into give up their nicotine habit." ...

"Laws banning pregnant women from buying and using cigarettes would have an immediate impact. A further measure can be the linking of the baby bonus to mothers remaining smoke-free for the term of their pregnancy, a simple test for nicotine can be conducted at the same time other routine blood work is completed during pregnancy."

The Rest of the Story

This column should summon the warning bell for all tobacco control groups. It should alert these groups that the anti-smoking crusade is pushing people too far and that if unrestrained, it will lead to the abuse of personal freedoms, rights, privacy, and autonomy.

If anti-smoking groups were communicating their messages effectively (or perhaps I should say: if anti-smoking groups were communicating the most appropriate messages), then I truly don't believe that a prominent newspaper like the Herald-Sun would be running a column like this without editing it for such offensive material.

And offensive it is.

To equate smokers with criminals, junkies, the violent, and the insane? Excuse me? What the hell are you talking about?

Should fat people also not have children? How about those with diabetes? How about those who eat crappy, fatty food?

How about if Rita Panahi just gives us a list of all the parental health behaviors that have been shown to affect the health of children, and we ban all of them, instituting a system of mandatory intrusive testing for these behaviors in order for women to be eligible for government benefits?

And to outlaw the purchase of cigarettes by women who are pregnant? What are we going to do? Set up a pregnancy testing station at every place where cigarettes are sold? And what if a pregnant women does smoke? What do we do then? Lock her up in jail? Apparently not. But we will, according to Panahi, take away her government benefits. How healthy can that be for the child? To deny them of food? Such a policy would be particularly devastating for the poor -- those who could least afford being stripped of their only means of providing nutrition to their infants and children. This is a real child-loving policy if I've ever heard of one.

Anti-smoking groups should be fighting over the opportunity to be the first to condemn this column. So far, I haven't seen any outcry about it from within the tobacco control community.

And that's precisely the problem. Because if anti-smoking groups were to condemn this kind of offensive speech, it would put an end to it - at least in the mainstream media. It is the fact that anti-smoking groups remain silent that keeps these kind of attitudes alive. Some anti-smoking groups have even been supporting ideas not too far off from those espoused here.

For the movement to remain viable, groups need to be able to take positions that are in opposition to those of other anti-smoking groups. Unfortunately, as I've learned (as recently as last week), you cannot criticize any statement or established position of an organization within the movement, and expect to stay within the movement yourself.

I'm therefore not holding my breath waiting for an anti-smoking organization to come along and condemn this column and the attitudes that underlie it.

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