Smoke and mirrors

Few people now argue with the proposition that people in enclosed rooms should not be able to light up, given their tobacco fumes are passed second-hand into the lungs of others present.

Once, such a notion would have been regarded as an unwarranted attack on the rights of people to exercise their freedom of choice.

Today, with the evidence of harm from tobacco beyond doubt, and with growing indications that even those who inhale concentrations of smoke from the air around them are endangered, indoor smoke-free prohibitions are generally accepted.

As tobacco/nicotine's causative role in various cancers has been highlighted, there has also been a greater recognition of other social impacts: the smell of cigarette smoke on clothes, for example; or on furniture or curtains; the way it lingers in a house, or attaches itself to the fabric of car interiors.

Whereas once people routinely smoked in private residences, it is now considered at best impolite; the socially aware smoker will excuse himself or herself and loiter outside to enjoy the effects of the nicotine "hit".

It seems, however, that where "outside" coincides with the exterior of a pub or bar, it could become off-limits for smokers.

This seems to be the thrust of research just published which suggests so doing could help to curb social smoking and thus diminish its consequences.

The study was conducted by the University of Otago and Massey University, supported by funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Thirteen young adult social smokers were interviewed about their habits.

This is entering smoke and mirrors territory. It has been suggested the introduction of smoke-free outdoor bars "could reduce social smoking by removing cues that stimulate this behaviour and changing the environment that facilitates it".

From a zero-sum, tobacco-related health perspective this would make good sense. But what would make even better sense would be to ban smoking altogether.

While plenty is being done to discourage smokers from indulging - including highlighting its dangers, making its purchase age-restricted, lessening its presence and visual impact in outlets such as supermarkets, and raising its cost - there is no real suggestion at present it will be outlawed entirely.

A total ban would drive supply underground and prove a nightmare to police.

There is also some residual resistance to the idea that killjoy society should proscribe everything that we do; that, should mature individuals, while cognisant of the risks smoking poses, choose to carry on doing it, they should be prevented from so doing.

But at what point do rules, ostensibly devised for the protection of the many, begin to infringe too far on the rights of the few?

Many people, besides smokers, will see in the devotion of authorities to its eradication in whatever form, the dictates of fashion and of job-lot authoritarianism hellbent on enforcing a dull conformism on individuals who make conscious, knowing choices. And if they are prepared to spread their tobacco net so far and wide, whatever next?

What social freedoms can be safe in the face of such overweening zeal?

They have a point, particularly as to risk and its relative social costs.

If, for example, costs of medical care are to be pre-eminent criteria in instituting prohibition, should society really continue to allow enthusiasts to ride motorcycles - or to indulge in any number of adventure sports, as a result of which death can be immediate rather than drawn out.

Such logic can be taken to absurd ends: given the high rates of melanoma in this country, and the concomitant social and medical costs, should not sunbathing be prohibited?

Or equally, to combat high levels of diabetes-inducing obesity, should pies and chips be banned?

The serious point is that there is a fine line between prohibitions that seek to minimise harm and social and economic cost, and those which curtail the individual freedom of choice which is a hallmark of developed, democratic societies.

Knowing just where to draw such a line requires the wisdom of Solomon - and then some.

For the moment, however, Solomon does not believe it lies in an arc outside the doors of this breezy city's pubs and bars.


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