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Where there's fire OR, why I support the right to smoke

Photo by Ander Burdain on Unsplash

New legislation in the UK aims to create the first smoke-free generation of our times. And that's not a good thing... for the UK, Canada or anywhere else.

The UK legislation is under debate in the spring 2024 session of British parliament. While it hasn’t received assent yet, bills like it will no doubt be on the table here and elsewhere in the near future. 

As a non-smoker, healthy living advocate and environmentalist you might think that I would support such a ban, but it's quite the opposite.

Why? Smoking is yellow tar on teeth and fingers. Stench in the air and on your clothes. Pollution and litter. Smoking is cancer and a drain on the health system.

Hard to argue for it. And that's why Big Tobacco has a target on its back. (Note: vaping is included in the legislation and in this critique, but I am using smoking as the catchall term.)

However, you can make the case: preservation of civil liberty, the failures of prohibition and the pleasure principle as key arguments for the defence.

But that feels too esoteric.

So let's go case by case.

  1. Smoking as a health care issue Legislators and health care advocates love this one. Easy, right? Smoking causes cancer, it costs the health system and has no nutritional benefits. But what about alcohol, fast food, sedentary lifestyles — surely we should ban those too? Take it a step further. What about other health risks? I'm a skier, should I be exempt from knee surgery in the future because I knowingly participated in a sport that takes a toll on the knees? Restricting choices doesn't teach healthy decision making. And it doesn't prevent behaviours. Which leads us to...

  2. Prohibition or education: smoking guns... As far as I know, there is no strong research that prohibition works, but there's plenty of evidence that it doesn't. The black market is renowned for finding restricted substances and generating a high return on the sale of these products. Famously, the prohibition of the 1930s was a boon for the mafia in North America. Crack in the 80s stimulated gangs and ghettoes. There’s already a black market for cigarettes by the carton—one of the largest cigarette smuggling busts in history recently occured here in Canada, with over $24 million in cigarettes seized in two separate investigations. Should we put age restrictions on these products? Absolutely. We know that younger, developing minds and bodies are more susceptible to developing lifelong addictive behaviours. Selling vapes or cigarettes to anyone under 18 (or even 21) should come with stiff penalties. But the good news is younger generations are not picking up these behaviours in the same numbers as past generations. In the US, smoking rates have declined from 42% in adults in 1965 to 13.7% in 2017. For youth those rates have dropped from 36% to 8.8% from 1997 to 2017. Which means deterrents are working.  Instead of bans, we should look at increasing the luxury tax on these products, stricter resale controls and continued health education to guide better behaviour. Changing behaviours takes education, not restrictions.

  3. The pleasure principle I take pleasure in the occasional cocktail or craft beer. I don't overconsume, generally, and so my risk factor for alcohol-related diseases is lowered. It's not zero, but I accept that in exchange for the satisfaction it gives me, time to time. On a basic human level, we all deserve the right to decide what trade-offs we will accept. Addiction is different. With pleasure removed from the equation, and a biological or psychological habit that is extremely hard to break, you're left with a monkey on your back. However, addiction treatment has shown that once again, the old “cold turkey” strategy isn’t generally effective.

Let's touch on one more argument: wildfires.

Carelessly disposed cigarettes are the culprit in many a fire. In my mind, this may be the best argument for a ban, as the impacts of a fire to our clean air supply and to our health and safety multiply exponentially.

But then, most people dispose of cigarettes more carefully. Other litter (glass, foil), sparks from trains, irresponsible campfires, industrial accidents - all of these also cause fire, and should and are legislated.

There are already fire bans in sensitive regions during times of heightened fire risk. Let's add cigarettes to the list of banned items in a fire restriction.

And what's more, let's introduce higher fines for disposing of cigarettes anywhere that isn't a proper receptacle. In fact, let’s treat the act of flicking cigarettes out a car window into a dry, grassy ditch as akin to arson.

All society involves the push and pull of liberty versus civility (one could go as far as to argue that that's basically what society IS). In a generational smoking ban, I see a slippery slope towards restricting liberties too greatly.

In this case, where there's smoke, let's not start a fire.


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