Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Five Days Later: Social Engineering Argument Being Used to Support Outdoor Smoking Bans

Just five days after I cautioned about the use of social engineering as a justification for outdoor smoking bans, it appears that anti-smoking groups in Canada are using exactly such an argument to promote these bans.

According to an article in yesterday's CBC Health & Science News, the great outdoors has become the next frontier for anti-smoking efforts and with the lack of scientific evidence that most outdoor smoking is a substantial public health problem, anti-smoking groups are falling back on an alternate argument to support these bans - that they are necessary to reduce smoking by making it more difficult for smokers to find places to smoke:

"Smoking has been banned in workplaces, restaurants and theatres, leaving the great outdoors as the next frontier for anti-smoking campaigns. 'People understand the concept of air pollution, that it may be everywhere,' said Roberta Ferrence of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. 'Somehow [with] second-hand smoke outdoors they feel it's magically whisked away, and it isn't.'

The governments have acted although there is little published research on levels of outdoor second-hand smoke or its health implications. Ferrence's colleague, Pam Kaufman of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, points to other reasons to ban or reduce outdoor smoking. 'Studies have shown that with restrictions, people are more likely to quit and possibly cut down on the amount that they smoke, even if they don't quit.'"

The move to ban smoking outdoors is apparently being viewed by some as not being motivated by a concern for protecting people's health, but as being an attempt at telling people how they should behave: "For Filip Palda, an economist and senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, the move to restrict or ban smoking outdoors is less about protecting people's health than preaching."

The Rest of the Story

I think this article seems to confirm my impression that backed into a corner because of the difficulty of presenting scientific evidence that most outdoor smoking is a substantial public health hazard that is causing substantial disease among nonsmokers, anti-smoking groups are now having to "scramble to try to justify their actions - and they come up with new ways of defending their actions, resorting to weaker and weaker arguments to do so."

As I have attempted to explain, I do not see the social engineering argument as being an appropriate justification for outdoor smoking bans because I simply do not think it is an appropriate function of public health practitioners to regulate lawful, individual behavior in public places simply so that people will not see behaviors that could be harmful to them.

I don't think we want to start down that road. Should public health practitioners support laws that ban eating french fries in public because it might help encourage poor nutrition? Should we support laws that ban drinking alcohol in public places in order to prevent kids from seeing alcohol use?

Or perhaps even more on the point, should we ban smoking indoors (e.g., in restaurants) simply because we know it will decrease smoking among adult smokers and reduce the exposure of youths to people smoking in public?

If that justification for banning outdoor smoking holds, then it also holds for banning all smoking outside of private homes. Under that reasoning, I see no adequate explanation for why anti-smoking advocates should not be demanding that all smoking in public be banned completely.

As I predicted, a backlash appears to have started already. The move to ban smoking outdoors is being publicly cast not as a public health measure, but as "preaching."

The scariest aspect of this story, however, is its potential ending. According to the article: "For their next move, anti-tobacco advocates say they want governments to address what they consider a form of child abuse: parents who smoke in their own cars or homes with children present."

While I find it disturbing that parents would subject their children to substantial levels of cigarette smoke, I don't think the government can properly intervene and ban smoking in private homes.

And while I find it disrespectful of the health of children to expose them to cigarette smoke, I in no way see smoking as a form of child abuse.

The rest of the story seems to confirm that, in the absence of solid scientific evidence to support the need for outdoor smoking bans, anti-smoking groups are indeed using the social engineering argument as a justification for these bans. I think the argument fails, and I hope that most of the bans do as well.

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