Monday, January 30, 2006

ASH's Reasons for Banning Smoking on Streets and Sidewalks Leave a Lot to Be Desired

I have already criticized Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) for using a completely inaccurate scientific claim (that 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause a heart attack in an otherwise healthy nonsmoker) to back up its support for banning smoking on streets and sidewalks.

Here, I address several of the other reasons ASH provides for such policies.

1. "Even aside from health hazards, being forced to breathe tobacco smoke is annoying and irritating to most people... It should be noted that many activities are banned in public places simply because they are annoying or irritating, even if they do not pose a health hazard."

2. "Cigarette butts discarded by smokers constitute the overwhelming majority of litter on beaches, as well as in many other public places like parks, playgrounds, and sidewalks."

3. "Cigarettes are a major source of burns to youngsters, including to their faces, when smokers hold their cigarettes at their sides and young children inadvertently come too close."

4. "Discarded cigarette butts may also be harmful to birds and other wildlife which nibble on or even swallow them, especially on a beach or park, but also even on a public sidewalk."

5. "Activities and images which might be inappropriate for young children and/or which might lead them into bad habits are often prohibited in public places, even if they pose no health risk and might even be appropriate in areas visited voluntarily only by adults."

The Rest of the Story

You've got to be kidding.

To even mention these reasons as potential justifications for an all-out ban on smoking on all streets and sidewalks does an injustice to the entire smoke-free movement. I find this to really be an embarrassment.

I haven't spent 21 years dedicating much of my career to the really serious issue of workers who are exposed 40+ hours a week to high levels of secondhand smoke and at increased risk of severe disease and death to have our movement come down to this: irritation and annoyance, cigarette butts, and possible damage to some birds nibbling on the butts!

Annoyances and irritations can be dealt with by just avoiding the smoke. Look - I'm annoyed and irritated severely by strong perfume. So I avoid it. It's not all that difficult. And if it does happen and I get a whiff or two, I am briefly annoyed but that's it. We don't need to ban wearing perfume because people may be annoyed.

The cigarette butt argument, as I have mentioned, is a losing one. If we really want to do something about cigarette butts polluting the outdoors, then banning smoking indoors is the last thing we would want to do. This argument, if taken seriously, threatens to jeopardize the whole effort to promote smoke-free workplaces. Luckily, I don't think it will be taken seriously.

And the argument that we should ban outdoor smoking because kids might see it is very troublesome to me. It suggests that what we are really doing is trying to make smokers social outcasts who are not even worthy of being observed publicly. They are no better than, and just as offensive as anyone who is publicly naked or intoxicated. This argument really leads to a slippery slope as well. What should we ban next? People eating french fries on the street corner?

Despite all of this, I have to say that the "birds nibbling on cigarette butts on the sidewalk" argument has to take the cake.

What's so troubling to me is that these arguments, I feel, make a farce of the whole smoke-free air movement. If this is what we're really all about, then count me out. I think there are a lot stronger justifications for smoke-free air than these reasons which ASH gives. And by offering these arguments, I'm afraid that ASH is diluting and undermining what would really be the only appropriate justification: if smoking on streets and sidewalks was enough of a public health hazard that it required government intervention and a legislated solution.

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