Saturday, July 21, 2012

Curbing the habit in the South

I was heartened to read that Atlanta has joined a number of other Southern cities in enacting bans on smoking in public places.

It's a good sign as far as I'm concerned. Smoking is a habit without any redeeming quality, save for making classic movies more interesting (I'm a sucker for smoking in black-and-white films).

I know that smokers feel besieged and angry. I probably would too if I were in their shoes. But we all need to recognize what smoking's real harm is.

Betty Price, a City Council member and doctor in Roswell, an Atlanta suburb, voted against her city’s ban on smoking in public parks. She said the city spent $20,000 on signs and has not issued any fines since the law took effect in 2010. Although Ms. Price called smoking “filthy” and “unhealthy,” she said people should be allowed to smoke outdoors if they are respectful of others.

“If someone wants to harm themselves by smoking, that’s awful, but it’s none of your business,” she said. “A constituent asked me, ‘Don’t you hate cigarette butts laying on the ground?’ Of course. But we have litter laws.”

Here we have somebody — actually, two people — willfully missing the point. Regarding cigarette butts on the ground, I can't get that worked up about a problem that can be handled with a broom. Compared with the other harm cigarettes inflict, litter is kind of trivial. Worrying about it first and foremost is like worrying first and foremost about the mildew in the aftermath of a tsunami.

Which brings us to smoking's bigger harm, the one that Price has to know about if she's any kind of competent doctor. And I'm not talking about the harm to the smoker: believe it or not, I agree with Price that people have the right to harm themselves if they really want. The trouble is that smoking harms other people. You have heard of secondhand smoke, haven't you, Dr. Price?

Your right to harm yourself becomes my business when your actions harm me. If I'm standing at a bus stop, I might be in a public space but I'm captive until that bus arrives. I resent having to endure the smoke from your cigarette, and I will support restrictions on your "right" to harm me in that space and anywhere else we both have the right to be and I don't have the option of moving away.

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