Smoking in Public Places - it's about rights too

It's popular to ban smoking in public places, but there are a lot of issues about rights that need to be considered. We also need to consider what a "public place" is and whether the government has any business regulating private affairs and personal choices in places owned and managed by private parties.

I'm a non-smoker. In fact, I detest smoking, but I love liberty much more than I detest the discomfort of second-hand smoke.

So, as a Libertarian I must carefully weigh the ideals that this country was founded on when it comes to smoking bans.

These ideals include: property rights, individual liberty, free enterprise and justice.

In January of 2009, I had the opportunity to testify before a Wyoming House committee that was hearing a proposed bill to ban smoking state-wide. Here is what I submitted to that portion of the legislature serving as House Committee #10 - Labor, Health and Social Services.

I used the submittal to make a 5 minute presentation before the committee.

Before and after my testimony, there were many that objected to smoking in public places, including those that had illnesses and those associated with the medical community.

The picture below is a happy moment the afternoon before my testimony when I met up with two other like-minded individuals who are also citizen lobbyists. From left to right are Matthew Huntington, Shane Sheid and me. It was great to meet these young gents and hear their testimony. They are true heros for our American freedoms, and I am proud to be associated with them.

Matthew Huntington, Shane Sheid and Clair Schwan discuss testimony against the smoking ban bill.

Smoking in Public Places - The Anecdotes

One woman who offered testimony appeared to be in her mid-70s. She testified that she was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. A serious illness that is often quickly fatal. You can imagine that she got the attention of those in the room that were there to support the ban on smoking in public places.

She told us that at first she wondered how she could have lung cancer since she wasn't a smoker. Then she told us that she remembered as a child that her parents smoked and they took her to places in a smoke-filled car. They went to many places where smoking was allowed. Sixty plus years ago, smoking in public places was common, even in grocery stores.

So who or what is to blame for her cancer? Her parents and their poor judgment? Maybe. The slow movement of the marketplace that allowed smoking in public places for so long? Maybe.

Or could it be that over the last 60 plus years she has been exposed to hundreds of carcinogens in our water, air, food and home environments from thousands of sources that we encounter every day? This is much more likely the case.

Her story is sad, but anecdotal at best, and not persuasive.

What About My Anecdotes?

Here is my own, similarly non-persuasive argument showing that secondhand smoke has a positive effect. I could have told the committee an anecdote like the following:

My grandmothers lived to be 94 and 96 years of age. I was always amazed at how long-lived my grandmothers were. Then I remembered that my grandfathers were life-long smokers, and it all started to make sense.

I never thought that being with smokers could prolong life. I never realized that smoking in public places could have such a positive influence, but just look what happened with my family.

I could have also told a story about my best friend. He never liked that both of his parents smoked when he was growing up, yet 40 years later, he and his older brother and sister are alive and well. His mother is 91 and in good health, and she still smokes.

There is no reason why my anecdotes aren't as compelling as others that are opposed to smoking in public places. My anecdotes have much the same content and quality - they can't technically nor logically bridge the gap between apparent cause (secondhand smoke) and evidence of effect (long life).

The big difference is that my stories of smoking in public places and exposure to secondhand smoke at home aren't sad, and I don't have my grandmother around anymore, and my best friend lives in another state.

My grandmother would have told the committee that she lived a good and long life with a good man that was a regular smoker. My best friend would have told the committee much the same story as I related.

Instead, the committee heard testimony from a woman who is fighting for her life and is going through miserable treatments, all because of what she believes happened 60 plus years ago because of second-hand smoke and smoking in public places.

I just wanted to jump up and say:

With all due respect, are you suggesting that the State of Wyoming take action on behalf of parents to protect children from the dangers that you were exposed to? If so, then you are encouraging us to exchange our rights and responsibilities as adults for the illusion of protection by government.

That will surely encourage us to be less responsible adults and our government to be more intrusive and controlling. Soon, we'll be asking the government permission for nearly everything.

Freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand. If you ask the government to come in and be responsible for your decision-making, then you'll lose your freedom as well because of your own admission, you're no longer capable of good decision-making.

It won't happen overnight, but it will happen. It's happening now in so many ways. Mostly because we invite it; we encourage it; and, we condone it. That's why I'm here today - to fight it.

I'm not willing to give up my freedom, nor I am willing to offer up the freedom of others for your illusion of government protection.

Do We Need Government Help?

No one detests smoking more than me, yet it's clear that we can't ask for government help with basic day-to-day decision-making like: parenting; where to go eat; where to seek employment; and what to consume, ingest or inhale. It's asking for big trouble.

Like a boss of mine used to ask: "Do you want to solve this, or do you want me to solve it for you?" If you were smart, you solved it yourself, because when he solved it, you weren't going to like the way it got solved. The same applies to government.

During the testimony about smoking in public places, it was amazing to hear small business owners and employees say that they would welcome a smoking ban. Others who own businesses in Cheyenne, where smoking is already prohibited, said the ban on smoking in public places was a relief to them because then they were able to make their businesses smoke-free.

It was clear from these statements that business owners and employees were waiting for action and instruction from the government. Evidently, they were too timid to demand what they wanted and seek out alternatives in the free market. It seems that we've been trained to wait for direction instead of being self-directed.

Just remember, when you wait around for instruction, don't be surprised if:

  • you wait a long, long time
  • undesirable things happen while you wait
  • the instructions you get aren't exactly what you wanted
  • the solutions imposed upon you don't work well
  • more instructions are forthcoming
  • people treat you like you need instruction

But the news isn't all bad. At least with "instructions from above", at long last, you'll have someone to blame for your life situation. Someone in authority. Someone besides yourself.

The Risks of Smoking in Public Places

I won't argue that smoking in public places doesn't pose a health risk. I think it does, but I also think the effects of secondhand smoke are very much exaggerated. About 40,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents each year in America, and few are talking about the dangers of driving in public places, and no one is talking about banning it.

The common chemicals found in our food, water and air are what we are exposed to much more often than toxins associated with smoking in public places. The chemicals that we find in our food, spray cleaners, building materials, paints, preservatives, dyes, deodorants and hundreds of other everyday products are most likely the things that contribute to poor health.

Emotion encourages us to find some cause and effect relationship because there is a correlation or coincidence. It's not necessarily true. In the case of our unfortunate lung cancer victim, there are just too many years and too many other factors between the cause and the supposed effect.

The Problem with Smoking in Public Places

Smoking is offensive. It stinks in more ways than one. People who smoke have a foul odor about themselves that they can't detect. It is undesirable to be in their presence, and it is miserable to be around them when they smoke.

Their smoking limits our choice of how we might interact with them. As a result, I don't have close friends who smoke. The few friends of mine who do smoke, don't smoke in my presence because they know how I feel about it. Light one up, and watch me leave.

So, I think all this talk about banning smoking in public places revolves around four things. Here they are in order of importance:

  • First, it's offensive, and I think that is the main gripe. I concur with the gripe. I hate it.

  • Second, most smokers are very inconsiderate. They toss their cigarette butts anywhere and light up and create a stench among us. It's our fault because we have allowed it. (We're quietly waiting for someone in authority to say something.)

  • Third, smoking causes a human toll. Smoking related diseases detract from our own sense of well-being. We hurt when others hurt, especially if the hurt is avoidable.

    We're convinced that smoking in public places is going to pull us into the hurt locker as well, so we oppose it. And, we don't want to see others suffer either.

  • Fourth, we believe that financial costs are higher for us, the non-smokers, because of the smoking addiction of others. Not so. The facts don't support it.

    Nevertheless, we have to grasp at other ways that smokers hurt us because we really can't politely complain that smokers have a foul stench. It's also uncomfortable to admit that our heart goes out to those that choose to smoke themselves to death.

    Our case has to be stronger, so we hold onto the idea that we are financially harmed.

The Solution to Smoking in Public Places

We've all heard that freedom isn't free. We've also heard that anything worth having is worth working for. Well, these are both truisms that apply to the debate about smoking in public places.

One of the prices of our freedom is tolerating people that think and act in ways that we don't appreciate. Those around us that preach tolerance are perhaps the least tolerant when it comes to smoking.

In seeking a solution, we can't chip away at the individual freedom of others without putting our own freedom at risk. Likewise, when we discuss smoking in public places, we're discussing private property, and unless we want government telling us what to do on our own property, we have to respect private property rights of others - even those that allow smoking on their private property that is open to the public.

So, there is a balance here between rights and desires. If we error on the side of rights, we stand a better chance of keeping our rights, even though we won't be nearly as happy.

If we demand that smoking in public places be banned, then we continue down a steep and slippery slope that encourages government to regulate other legal activities that occur on private property.

Passing a law that requires private property owners to declare at their business entrances whether they allow smoking, prohibit smoking, or accommodate both smokers and non-smokers is the most reasonable thing to do. This allows everyone to make a choice and it preserves everyone's rights.

Smokers can identify and choose to do business with enterprises that tolerate their addiction, and non-smokers can avoid places that they find offensive or pose a threat to their well-being. And, private enterprise owners can decide which side of the issue they are going to be on, or whether they will accommodate both smokers and non-smokers.

Sure, fewer non-smoking establishments means that that non-smokers have fewer choices, but private enterprise has already shown a strong tendency to prohibit smoking, even in the absence of ordinances that ban smoking in public places. Most enterprises in towns and cities are non-smoking.

So, who is on the losing end of this battle - it's the smokers.

And, if we want even more smoke-free environments, then we must discuss our interests with those that own and operate the establishments we want to patronize. I did just that in California more than 20 years ago when I wanted a meal in a nice French restaurant. I was laughed at, but pointed out to them that fine food shouldn't have cigarette smoke associated with it, anymore than it should have cigarette ash associated with it.

The restaurant listened, and accommodated me and my guest with a small room that was cozy, romantic and smoke free. It was an absolute pleasure, and I let them know that upon our departure. I also let them know that if I could get a smoke-free place to dine that I would come back again. Soon after that, the entire restaurant was a smoke free place for dining.

If you don't like smoking in public places, then speak up to those who operate those "public places" and let them hear from you. Enlist the help of your friends and neighbors, but not the ones that were elected to public office. Remember, Ronald Reagan told us that the nine most feared words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.

Lastly, tell the dopes that pitch out their cigarette butts and light up in your presence that it is offensive to you. Practice being a Libertarian - pretend that you're free. If you don't, you're just encouraging more inconsiderate actions by smokers, and more reason for the timid to ask for government intrusion in the form of bans on smoking in public places.

Pitch the smoldering butt back in through the open window of the car from which it came - that's the real attention-getter!

Done with Smoking in Public Places, take me back to Stupid Laws

Help others defend their natural human rights, even when none of yours are at risk. It's just a matter of time before government turns its focus on you. It's then you'll need others to return the favor and support the rights that you hold dear.

Nothing in human history has shown itself to promote success like freedom. Yet, liberty is under fire on a daily basis from those who desire to be your lord and master.

It takes courage to be free, and far greater courage to allow others to be free. May you have that far greater courage.