Tuesday, December 05, 2006

USA Today Editorial Says Anti-Smoking Movement is Going Too Far

An editorial published yesterday in USA Today argues that the anti-smoking movement is going too far by pushing to ban smoking in wide-open outdoors places like parks and private places like an individual's car. The piece, entitled "Smoking ban drifts too far," clearly acknowledges the need for protection of nonsmokers from secondhand smoke in public indoor places, including workplaces, but suggests that many anti-smoking groups just don't know when to stop:

"This [the spread of smoke-free workplace legislation] is a remarkable success story, but some people seem intent on proving that there can be too much of a good thing. The first signs of trouble were bans on smoking in places where secondhand smoke poses no threat to health. Last year, for instance, San Francisco banned smoking in public parks. Now the battleground is the family car. Earlier this year, Arkansas and Louisiana banned smoking in cars carrying young children. Similar proposals have been introduced in seven other states. The benefits are dubious. While children of smokers indisputably are the primary victims of secondhand smoke, cars aren't the biggest problem. Children are exposed to far more smoke at home. But with the home beyond the reach of regulation, anti-smoking advocates have struggled to find a way to protect them." ...

"With nearly 1,200 children younger than 10 killed in traffic accidents and 130,000 injured across the nation last year, shouldn't police focus on such violations as drunken driving, speeding or failing to buckle a child into a car seat or seatbelt? Rep. Bob Mathis, the author of the Arkansas bill, doesn't even expect the law to function as written. He set the fine at $25, which can be suspended if a driver attends a smoking-cessation program. He says he doesn't want the law to "be punitive"; he wants to educate parents. If Mathis wants to educate, he should have sought state funds for a public advertising campaign. When children are endangered, there certainly is reason for public attention and for government action. But not without limits and not for show. If smokers are to be stopped from letting their habit jeopardize their children's health, then it will have to done not by fiat, but by persuasion. That's not as easy as banning smoking on airplanes. But until the nation decides that parents no longer get to decide what's best for their kids, it's the only option that can work."

In an opposing viewpoint, Mathis counters that smoking bans in cars are necessary to protect children from secondhand smoke. While acknowledging that this does nothing to address the more serious problem of exposure in the home, he argues that in the home, education is what is needed:

"We need to get our priorities straight and do everything we can to make sure our children grow up in safe and healthy environments. That includes protecting them from secondhand smoke. The law I sponsored in Arkansas prohibits smoking in cars where young children are passengers. Obviously, cars are not the only place where children are exposed to tobacco smoke. For that reason, we must go further and encourage all parents of young children to stop smoking."

The Rest of the Story

I think USA Today wins this debate hands down. First of all, Mathis does not address the fundamental argument that the newspaper makes: how can one justify a coercive approach to protecting children from secondhand smoke in a private car, but only an educational approach to protect children from exposure in a private home?

In fact, Mathis essentially acknowledges this inconsistency in his argument, noting that while he favors a coercive approach to protect children in cars, he favors merely an educational approach (encourage parents to quit) to protect children in the home. Unless Mathis, and anti-smoking groups which support car smoking bans, can provide a compelling argument for why a coercive approach is justified in a private car but not a private home, I'm afraid that this public policy proposal will simply not hold water.

If Mathis is correct that we need to do everything we can to protect children from secondhand smoke, then is it not true that we need to ban smoking completely, or at least ban smoking by all parents? At very least, we would want to ban smoking by parents in the home when a child is present. But Mathis is not arguing in support of such a policy.

I really cannot see any qualitative difference between a private car and a private home in terms of the regulation of childrens' exposure to secondhand smoke.

There is, however, a quantitative difference: overall exposure in the home far exceeds exposure in cars, as do the resulting health effects. Thus, if you are going to choose just one policy to protect children from secondhand smoke, you'd want to focus on household exposure.

I think USA Today make a couple of insightful points about the anti-smoking movement. The paper correctly suggests that we have been very successful in promoting smoke-free laws, but that we don't seem to know when to stop.

Most importantly, the paper correctly notes a major distinction between workplace smoking bans and bans on smoking in wide-open outdoor spaces: the latter ban smoking where it poses no (or little) threat to health. Thus, the smoke-free movement has transitioned from one whose main concern was health to one whose main concern is something other than health protection.

Finally, the paper makes an important point regarding the autonomy of parents to make their own decisions about health risks to which they expose their children. Our society has rightly decided to leave those decisions up to the parents. Anti-smoking groups which support policies like car smoking bans are attempting to take those decisions out of the hands of the parents and put them into the hands of the state. This represents an undue interference with parental autonomy.

And the interference with parental autonomy is no different in a private car compared to a private home. Thus, the inconsistency of these policies is laid bare.

Beyond the compelling arguments provided by the editorial, this story is important because it demonstrates that there is a growing public perception, now starting to take hold in the media, that the anti-smoking movement is going too far.

This should be a warning to us in the movement. Because the tide can turn extremely quickly. If we don't heed these early warning signs, it could very quickly be too late to save ourselves.

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