The debate over smoking in America over the past several years has reached an ever-accelerating pace. Arguments are thrown back and forth, with pro-tobacco advocates railing about privacy, freedom, and personal responsibility and the anti-smoking groups railing about cancer, mortality rates, addiction, and second-hand smoke.

There are good and bad arguments coming from both camps. The anti-smokers have the benefit of using media blitzes to promote their cause, and the pro-smokers have the benefit of a huge and increasingly alienated user base. There is evidence, however, that the argument can never be won by either side under our current political system. The purpose of this writeup is to examine the strengths and flaws of each side as they relate to the current legal environment in the United States.

The issues

Smokers and their advocates have some salient points about current restrictions concerning smoking, but so do their opponents. The following is an examination of two of these points along with the strengths and weaknesses of each

  • Freedom
    Pro-smoking: America is about freedom, and freedom should mean individuals should be able to do whatever they wish as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. Restrictions such as those instituted in Montgomery county, Maryland (where you may smoke in your yard, but if it wafts over your fence into your neighbor's yard, you could be fined $750.00) interfere with the basic freedoms granted to Americans by the constitution. American citizens should be able to do whatever they wish on their own property, and have equal access to public properties. Resaurants and bars should have the choice whether to allow smoking or not. The marketplace will determine the value of their choices and the government should stay out of it.
    Anti-smoking: There are legal restrictions for activities that impinge on the private property, use of public facilities, and health and well-being of others. Noise and light pollution issues are readily understood and accepted, and access for handicapped individuals is mandated for public facilities. Smoke is a noxious substance which can be irritating to other individuals, and can often acutely affect the health of some. Asthmatics for example should not be forced to walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke in the lobby of public buildings or while riding on public transportation. People should have recourse if others are affecting their use of private property by noise, smoking, light, or other environmental factors.
    The issue here is how far are Americans as individuals willing to give up certain freedoms in order to make their surroundings more comfortable and safe. Most would agree that certain things such as pornography, profanity, nudity, and sexual activity to name a few should be limited to some degree as regards their presence in public. Certain speech, such as inciting a riot, yelling "bomb!" in a crowded theater, or discussing overthrowing the government is limited, and rightfully so. The issue of where smoking fits into this spectrum is a valid one, and doesn't easily yield a black and white answer, despite the contentions of both sides. In some instances smoking does not affect others, and in some it does. The task of specifically legislating a law that justly divides these situation is simply impossible.

  • Personal responsibility
    Pro smoking: When performed in the privacy of one's own home or vehicle, or in situations where others are not affected, smoking only harms the user. There is no impairment of reflexes or judgement attributed to smoking as there is with other substances. Smoking, therefore, is a personal choice, and the government should not pass laws affecting this. Building codes that restrict residents from smoking in their own apartments (such as the co-op at 180 West End Avenue, NYC - where they will kick you out if you smoke in your own place) should not be legal, as the action harms nobody else.
    Anti smoking: Besides the sidestream smoke issue, an individual harming themselves can be detrimental to society. The burden to society of the illnesses caused by smoking, the low-birth weight infants, and the social impact on families who lose loved ones and providers due to smoking is not acceptable. Yes, individuality is important, but there is a responsibility to society in being a citizen as well, and smokers shirk some of that responsibility for their own self-gratification and/or addiction.
    This, more than anything else is the unsolvable issue. The reason for this is the existence of welfare state. With the ushering in of The Great Society in 1964 under President Lyndon Johnson, the United States began providing medical coverage for the poor and elderly through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. People not under these programs arguably should have every right to smoke when it does not affect others, but the dilemma comes when considering what to do about those that are supported by the tax dollars of others. Why should non-smoking Americans be forced to pay for pulmonary care, medications, hospitalizations, and other medical costs associated with smoking for those covered by these programs? Why should tax dollars be used to pay for food stamps for a two-pack-a-day smoker who would have an extra thousand or two dollars each year if they did not smoke? The dilemma is that Medicare and Medicaid cannot refuse to pay for these costs, nor can they disqualify smokers from these programs or restrict the beneficiaries from smoking - all methods that would solve the problem, but would put the government in the position of denying certain actions to some citizens and not to others.

Thus, despite good arguments on both sides of the issue, the wedge of social programs permanantly prevents a workable solution. The only way for the United States to make progress on the debate over smoking is to make fundamental changes in the entitlement programs that exist, and that doesn't seem likely any time soon.

momomom points out that the policy of private insurance companies of charging smokers higher rates than non-smokers is pertinent to this discussion. It shows that the marketplace realizes the increased cost of health care for smokers. The respective welfare organizations have so far turned a blind eye.

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