Monday, March 06, 2006

Action on Smoking and Health Rejoicing in Unjustified Oppression of Smokers

I'll admit it. I just can't keep up with them. As fast as I can blog (and I've been known to push this stuff out pretty quickly in my day), I cannot keep up with the efforts of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) to promote policies that punish smokers and then to exult in that punishment when those policies are enacted.

Today, ASH issued a press release that appears to rejoice in the trend of adoption of policies that I view as having little public health merit or justification, but which serve to punish smokers for their addiction and/or health behavior choices.

The press release, entitled "New Aggressive Antismoking Tactics Gaining Acceptance; Smoking Bans at Home and Outdoors, and on Employees, Becoming the Norm," states:

"Smoking prohibited on city sidewalks and streets, and on private parking lots and restaurant patios! Smoking banned in private homes, and inside smokers' condos and apartments! Companies refusing to hire -- or even firing -- employees who smoke off the job! It's all rapidly becoming commonplace, and accepted."

The Rest of the Story

I am not going to spend time here repeating my arguments for why I do not consider banning smoking at home and outdoors and why smoking bans on employees (as ASH calls it) represent unjustified policies that have no public health merit, no solid scientific basis, are not legitimate policy approaches from a public health perspective, and are unduly intrusive into personal privacy and individual rights. A quick scan of my blog can lead the reader to many posts which explore my opinions in some detail.

Here, I'd like to comment on 3 aspects of the story.

First, I take issue with the contention that all of the policies being described by ASH are becoming commonplace and accepted.

I think ASH is getting a bit over-excited about Calabasas. One city passes a quite stupid policy that bans smoking on sidewalks and in parking lots, and ASH now claims that this ridiculous policy has gained public acceptance and has become commonplace. It's just one crazy city, for God sakes! Does that make it commonplace?

What it appears is that ASH is deliberately trying to make it seem like these policies have gained public acceptance in order to try to promote their further spread. I guess they are entitled to pursue that strategy if they want, but I don't particularly care for it because I think it's misleading, and I don't think it's true.

But more importantly, I think it's damaging. I think it seriously detracts from what I consider to be legitimate efforts to ban smoking in workplaces where exposure is high (we can all agree, I am sure, that if one accepts that smoking outdoors on sidewalks is a public health problem, then smoking in bars, restaurants, or casinos is a much worse one). The focus should be on indoor smoking bans, or at least workplace bans, but instead, ASH is diverting attention away to streets and sidewalks and parking lots.

Look - we can't even get smoking in casinos eliminated to protect 48,000 casino workers in New Jersey. Is it time to start pursuing sidewalk smoking bans???

I do not believe, for a minute, that the public has accepted smoking bans in every street, sidewalk, and parking lot. Look - I'm one of the most ardent tobacco control advocates out here and I myself have not accepted such bans. I highly doubt that the general public has accepted this idea.

And if we seriously pursue it, as ASH seems to want us to, then it's only going to result in people viewing us as absolutely crazy fanatics (and probably rightly so). I don't see how that's going to do anything other than hurt our efforts to provide smoke-free workplaces for all workers.

Unfortunately, I do have to admit that I tend to agree with ASH that workplace smoker bans have become relatively commonplace and accepted. We now have a growing list of employers that are discriminating against smokers in their employment decisions: the World Health Organization, Truman Medical Centers, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Weyco, Crown Laboratories, and more.

Second, it doesn't really matter to me whether the public is or is not accepting these policies. What matters to me is whether or not these policies are appropriate or not. In other words, it is not appropriate for us to promote these policies simply because we can get away with it. We should promote them if and only if they are the right thing to do.

Call me Madisonian, but I do view one of the purposes of government as protecting people from the tyranny of the majority (not just the minority). So even if the majority of the public expressed support for banning smokers from employment or banning smoking on every street and sidewalk, I would continue to oppose such policies unless I could be convinced that there was a compelling public health justification for them.

Third, does it not strike you that ASH seems to be gloating in, or rejoicing in some way, in the punishment of, (and at worst, the oppression of) smokers? In my view, denying jobs to smokers is oppressing them into an unemployable second class of citizenry, and it's nothing to gloat about.

The rest of the story is that the punishment of smokers is alive and well in the United States, but it has not been accepted yet. Not just yet. Don't be hasty.

And as long as I'm writing, no one will be able to say that it has been accepted from within the tobacco control movement.

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