Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Smoking and Individual Rights

Earlier this year the New York City Council passed a law banning smoking in open areas such as beaches and parks. Evidence for physical harm to non-smokers from secondary smoke exposure in such areas, is very tenuous at best, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.(1) There may be dangers to those under constant exposure, such as waiters, though not to the occasional bystander. But there are reasons other than those of health, cited by the advocates of this new regulation. Additional disturbing aspects of public smoking, such as cigarette litter and the "nuisance" caused by tobacco smoke have also been cited.

The Journal considers that "in the absence of direct health risks to others, bans on smoking in parks and beaches raises the questions about acceptable limits for government to impose on conduct."(1) This advances the issue as to how far a society should go in restricting the rights of individuals to participate in non-harmful behavior to others - behavior that can be considered no more than a nuisance. Robert Rabin, legal scholar and former program director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Tobacco Policy Research and Evaluation Program, has questioned another very basic issue - how extensive a restriction, even on known self-destructive behavior, should a society impose?

If smoking is to be legal - if individuals do indeed possess the "right" to what could be considered "self-destructive" behavior - in what public (or even private spaces, such as one's own apartment) should such behavior still be allowed?

1. Colgrove et al. Nowhere left to hide? The banishment of smoking from public spaces. NEngJMed 2011;364:25.

No comments: