Monday, December 12, 2005

Backlash Begins: Boston Globe Says Anti-Smoking Actions Going Too Far

In an editorial today, the Boston Globe states that despite its vigorous support for all sorts of anti-smoking policies, it thinks the anti-smoking movement has gone too far. Specifically, the Globe takes issue with the recently-announced policy of the World Health Organization not to hire smokers:

"This newspaper proudly supports all sorts of policies to combat the use of tobacco. We are for smoke-free workplaces, raising the cigarette tax, toughening sanctions on sales to minors, prohibiting sales through vending machines, and protecting state and federal funds for smoking cessation programs from budget cutbacks. But the World Health Organization's recently announced policy to deny jobs to smokers goes too far.

We deplore smoking, too, but there is an important distinction to be made between an action and an individual. The WHO policy conflates the two in a worrisome way, aiming not just at smoking but at smokers.

Smokers are modern-day pariahs and an easy target. But just as free speech rights must extend to the most unpopular views, so, too, should unsound -- but private -- activities such as smoking, drinking, or eating Twinkies be protected from raids by the lifestyle police."

The Rest of the Story

When the Boston Globe starts complaining about anti-smoking policies as being "raids from the lifestyle police," then you know that the movement has gone too far, and that the backlash perhaps has begun.

The importance of this story to tobacco control groups and advocates is, I think, not about how the Boston Globe is opposed to employment discrimination in the form of policies by which employers refuse to hire smokers.

Instead, the story is about how quickly a public health movement can lose its public perception as a legitimate, health-oriented, well-reasoned movement and be publicly cast as illegitimate - as a "raid" from the "lifestyle police."

In other words, the backlash does not merely have implications for the specific issue at hand. It has implications for the very way in which the entire movement and its practitioners are perceived.

And this is why I have been going to such great lengths to try to warn the movement about this impending backlash, to question policies that I think are just going too far, and to try to make sure that we as public health and tobacco control practitioners ensure that our proposed policies are justified and consistent with ethical principles of public health conduct.

It is not just employment policies that are at stake here (and my hope is that the idea of making smoking a condition of employment does go by the wayside); it is the very legitimacy, credibility, and public perception of our movement that is threatened, and this is the precise reason why The Rest of the Story exists.

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