There is an understanding in our free society that we can exercise our personal autonomy as long as we do not interfere with the rights and liberties of others. The true nature of government is to build and maitain infrastructure and to make and enforce laws that protect the rights and liberties of the people. This works well when there are clear definitions of the boundaries between liberty and autonomy. But what about those gray areas where the lines are not so clear? This is where our responsibility to vote and to interact with the legislative process becomes paramount. We, collectively, decide what those lines and boundaries are, and they move and change with time. The ban on smoking in public places is gaining momentum in many areas of the country, and it is a prime example of the complexity of defining these boundaries.
The issue has been around for a long time, and remains in the news regularly. Governor Chet Culver of Iowa signed ino law on Tuesday, April 15, a smoking ban on indoor smoking that affects the entire state of Iowa. Kansas City, MO, passed a smoking ban in the last few weeks, Colorado and Arkansas have been publicly smoke-free since 2006, and Anchorage passed their ban as early as 2002. In 1990, San Luis Obispo, California, U.S.A. became the first city in the world to ban indoor smoking at all public places, including bars and restaurants. You can see a more comprehensive list of smoking bans and definitions at Smoke Free USA. All of these legalizations have had fierce oppposition and debate. The debate is healthy and provides an opportunity to examine the values that we hold as a culture about where our tolerance lies for individual autonomy.
I have mixed feelings about it because I am not a smoker. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, but one typically does not hear a lot about them. The argument, for instance, that there is no ban on drinking in restaurants, so why should there be a ban on smoking? If you can’t see the difference or the inherent flaw in that argument, then you should stick with another blog or be satisfied with clips from Bill O’Reilly. A more apt argument for the ban suggests that you can no more have a smoking section in a restaurant than a peeing section in a pool, and both should be against the rules.
I know I am glad to have the chance to sit in a restaurant and enjoy my dinner without having to breath another person’s expended smoke, but I admit that I would be satisfied to use my wallet to make that choice, rather than my vote. If there was a good restaurant that was entirely non-smoking, then I would just go there. I think that bans on public places, like parks and libraries, are warranted, since I cannot choose to avoid the smoke and saying that I can just avoid the public place is a little like banning non smokers from those places. Telling the owner of a business, however, that he can or cannot smoke in his own establishment, is an entirely different matter. Like I said, I have no love for smoking anywhere, but I can empathize with a smoker who has paid for his restaurant with the work of his own hands and is denied the option of smoking in his own building.
As this issue continues to grab the attention of the media and the public, and more and more states and municipalities vote on smoking and debate the value of public health vs. the value of individual autonomy, it becomes more and more imperative that people engage in the public debate and use their votes to express their values. Legislation will not be enough to stop smoking or to curb the impact of the tobacco industry on our society, so if you are one who supports a smoking ban you should be working extra hard on social and economic stimuli that will serve to reinforce your position. Either way, this is a debate that has a very important outcome, as it suggests much about the attitude of our national culture toward civil liberty and individual freedom.