Simon Waxman

Smoking opponents, please butt out

By Simon Waxman
May 15, 2010

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THE MASSACHUSETTS Public Health Council is expected to approve a new program requiring retailers of tobacco products to display graphic posters that show the damage that tobacco use can cause. The posters are intended to induce smokers to quit their habit. But as we rush headlong into this state-sponsored effort at behavior modification, we ought to ask ourselves exactly what our goals are. Will we be satisfied by anything less than a smoke-free community? And is the health of adults really anyone’s business but their own?

The posters are promoted as vehicles to enhance public health, presumably by helping to cut down on smoking and therefore secondhand inhalation. But Massachusetts already has an indoor smoking ban that ensures no one in the state can be exposed to cigarette smoke in an enclosed space apart from a private residence.

Since smoking outdoors has little discernible effect on others’ health (assuming people can move around freely), there is no longer any place in the state where a person legally can be subjected to secondhand smoke in a manner that is damaging to health, except by choice.

But let’s not mince words about public health. Even proponents admit that the real aim is to pressure individuals to cease smoking.

Antismoking crusaders have established a goal of zero. Ultimately, they want smoking to be illegal, but if this cannot be achieved, they will go to increasingly invasive and degrading lengths to ensure that every smoker quits “voluntarily.’’ If a small textual warning on the pack is not enough, then it must be enlarged. If a large warning on the pack isn’t enough, then there must be a warning placard in the store. If the placard fails to bring incidence of smoking to zero, there must be a grisly visual reminder.

What will be next? We all know that these posters will not eliminate smoking in Massachusetts. Will smokers at some point be required upon purchase of cigarettes to sign notices indicating that they recognize the health risks? Perhaps we will demand that they watch videos of surgeries or smokers on their deathbeds. Certainly we are not at this stage now, but we must ask whether there are lengths we will not go in order to humiliate the smokers among us.

And let us not forget that requiring store owners to display posters is an act of compelled speech. There are any number of precedents for compelled speech of this sort, but we should not mistake the legality of such orders for their desirability. Whenever the government requires that private persons disseminate its message, it undermines our freedoms of speech and conscience. Even if the mandated message is one that we support and would announce proudly without coercion, the mandate itself proscribes the sphere of personal agency.

Yet many do not seem to care about this narrowing of individual liberty. This is what we exchange for the opportunity to harangue fellow adults about their private choices.

Some proponents of these posters and other extremist antismoking measures would reply that they are primarily concerned with youth smoking.

Very well. That is why it is illegal to sell and market cigarettes to minors. At some point, we must recognize that we have done all we reasonably can to insulate youth from smoking and that in ostracizing adults, we only create pariahs in our communities.

What is more, how can it be ethical to harass adults for the ostensible benefit of children? Human beings do not have greater moral worth as children than as adults. An adult’s freedom to pursue legal activities in peace shouldn’t be sabotaged because some of his peers want a different lifestyle for their children.

These posters represent merely the latest indignity that smokers must suffer in order to shield radical nonsmokers from behaviors that disgust them. But it’s not the government’s job to protect people from offense, and existing laws in the Commonwealth are adequate to guard nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. It’s time antismoking zealots stopped shouting and gave their lungs a rest.

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.

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