Will our Liberty be Compromised when our Cigarettes are Extinguished?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in


The 1st of July marks an important day in England's medical and social history. Both will be altered by the smoking ban. From that date, it will be illegal to smoke in enclosed public spaces in England. Some smokers believe that the ban will help them quit, while others believe that it will only encourage them to smoke more at home. Most of us believe, however, that for those of us who do not smoke, the ban will at least ensure that we don't inadvertently, i.e., passively, end up smoking the cigarettes of those around us.

The smoking ban has been criticised by many, including non-smokers, because it smacks of a "nanny state." The argument goes along the lines of how wrong it is for the State to control the lives of adults, how alcohol will become the "new tobacco" and how, eventually, the Government will be regulating how much salt we put in our food. If the purpose of the ban is indeed to control the decision to smoke per se, it is morally wrong and the critics are right to fear a slippery slope where one type of intervention will invariably lead to another. If, however, the ban is solely about controlling the decision to smoke in an enclosed public place, it is morally appropriate.

There is a subtle but significant difference between the two scenarios. Stopping someone from smoking per se does compromise liberty. Competent adults ought to have the right to determine their actions. If they choose to smoke and face the health risks associated with smoking, the choice is theirs. However, the second scenario is not about stopping people from smoking but about stopping them from smoking in enclosed public spaces, i.e., spaces where others, i.e., non-smokers, are also affected by smoke. In this scenario, the consequences of the decision to smoke extend beyond the decision-maker. His decision is one that affects others who have no role to play in this decision and ought, therefore, not to bear the consequences of it. For a non-smoker to pay the price for smoking when it is a choice that he did not make is morally wrong.

The idea of paying for a choice that we have not made is exactly what makes the smoking ban so important. So far, non-smokers smoke just by being near smokers. The ban serves to protect us from the effects of a choice that we have not made. The smoking ban may disregard the choice of a smoker to smoke in an enclosed public place but by doing so it respects the choice of non-smokers who choose not to inhale second hand smoke. People who want to smoke will do so anyway and while the smoking ban might encourage them to stop by making it more difficult for them to pursue the habit, it can't legitimately require it of them. Competent adults have the right to enjoy their freedoms regardless of the consequences unless the consequences result in harm to others. This is exactly the point of the smoking ban. While the ban might hope to get our smokers to cut down or even give up smoking, its real value is the protection it offers non-smokers.

The smoking ban will bring our laws regarding smoking closer in line with our laws governing the consumption of alcohol. People are free to consume alcoholic beverages as long as their drinking does not harm others. Drinking alcohol per se is not illegal but driving while drunk is illegal. Similarly, smoking per se will not be illegal but smoking in public places, i.e., around others who may suffer from one's smoking is illegal. Although both drinking and smoking may be harmful to the person who engages in these activities, the greater moral danger is to the "innocent bystander", i.e., the individual who bears the consequences of these activities without making the choice to risk their harms himself. The laws are right to protect people who want to be protected from the potential consequences of these activities. The law is also right to continue to grant the freedom of choice to smokers and drinkers even though these activities might be detrimental to their health.

One could argue that non-smokers could choose not to go to pubs and other areas that allow smoking and thereby protect themselves from the effects of passive smoke. This is, in fact, what many non-smokers do. One could also argue that the law is not needed to protect adults who can protect themselves by choosing to stay away from cigarette smoke. Although these arguments are reasonable, they stand on the edge of a slippery slope. If the law allowed blanket freedoms without restrictions and left it to citizens to protect themselves by staying away from potential danger, we would live in a very dangerous society. It would be problematic, for example, to alter the laws prohibiting knife and gun crime, on the basis that people should simply stay away from the areas where such crime occurs. Similarly, if we did not have laws that prohibited drink driving on the basis that people can look after themselves, many more people might be killed on our roads. It is simply not practical to ask that all of us keep off the road in case there is a drunken driver.

The new laws governing smoking are no different. The effects may not be as visible or dramatic as the effects of a drunken driver but the moral issue is the same. The law has a duty to protect its citizens and if protection means restricting the freedoms of those who harm others by expressing their freedoms, then these freedoms are worth restricting.