Your freedom ends where my nose begins

Tobacco kills, regardless of boundaries set by either man or nature. Every year more than 5 million people lose their lives because of tobacco, and of these 3,500 live in Lebanon.

In an editorial published in NOW Lebanon last week, Michael Young considered Lebanon’s possible adoption of a public smoking ban “a terrible idea” just because it arrives from abroad. That smoking bans save lives is a fact supported by unequivocal scientific evidence, and it is a “terrible idea” that is endorsed by 168 countries, including Lebanon, representing more than 86% of the world’s population.
Unlike what was suggested by Mr. Young, most smoking bans are anything but universal, and one would be hard pressed to find a place where an “absolutist argument” won out. The tobacco industry is one that intentionally produced and marketed to millions of its loyal customers a product which, even by its own admission, causes death. The industry has a long history of deceit and manipulation of the public. Yet the industry would argue against a smoking ban for fear its profits may decrease. However, the majority of tobacco control advocates base their argument on science. It is a fact that exposure to second-hand smoke in indoor places harms health and increases one’s risk of dying. Second-hand smoke contains thousands of chemicals, of which at least 250 are cancer-causing or otherwise toxic. Why is it acceptable to have anything short of a total ban on smoking in indoor public places? What evidence has Mr. Young that lighting up in other people’s presence is not killing them? 
Mr. Young also expressed his support to “give people a choice”, using the same “courtesy of choice” argument that Philip Morris began in the US in 1993 under its Accommodation Program, which is still in use in one recycled form or another by the tobacco industry, especially in developing countries. Exposure to second-hand smoke is not a nuisance subject to courtesy, but literally a matter of health, life and death.

Tobacco control advocates talk of protecting people from second-hand smoke; this includes both smokers and non-smokers, since smokers are also exposed to theirs and other smokers’ fumes. The right to breathe fresh air is not a question of smokers’ or non-smokers’ rights, but rather a human right. Keeping in mind that no rights are without limits, and that some rights take precedence over others, is it reasonable to argue for one’s right to enjoy the pleasure of a cigarette while denying another’s right to life and health? In such a case, the right to life and health always takes precedence. When your freedom to smoke is causing death and disease, then “your freedom ends where my nose begins.”

That there are other causes of death and disease is also not a reason to not tackle tobacco use. Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the world, as well as in Lebanon, and hence should always be considered a public health priority. If we were to accept the reasoning offered of having “a few days knocked off our lives” because of one health risk, would we also accept losing more days (or years) by stopping vaccination programs, restricting access to hospital care and clean water supply, and ignoring road safety and other interventions? And while Mr. Young may consider European or American scenes of people braving the cold to smoke outdoors “dispiriting”, the fact remains that countries and states that have taken measures to protect their citizens from second-hand smoke are saving human lives every single day. Saving lives also means saving money to both the individual and to society.
Leaving a smoking ban up to the restaurant, pub or café owner’s decision, as Mr. Young suggested, does nothing to change the status quo. The fact remains that very few of such locations are smoke-free today, and a self-regulatory approach usually means not doing anything to clean the air up. We also know from several countries that experimented with such voluntary regulation. Two years after Spain took a voluntary approach it has been proven that this did not protect the health of the workers or patrons. Recently Spain’s Health Minister publicly stated that this approach does not work and that they have to go 100% smoke-free.

As for Lebanon, a study recently conducted with experts from Harvard University measured second-hand smoke levels at 28 Lebanese restaurants and cafés, revealing, shockingly, that the mean exposure to second-hand smoke was well above the level considered “hazardous” by World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines, and is among the highest in the world. The majority of Lebanese continue to be exposed to such high levels of second-hand smoke, especially employees, who would continue to be exposed to second-hand smoke under any partial or voluntary ban. One need not wonder too long why Lebanon has a disproportionately higher incidence of cancer than neighboring countries. Any experimentation with measures other than a comprehensive ban in indoor public places will not happen “with no one really suffering”, unless one is to discount the hundreds, possibly thousands of lives that would have been otherwise saved.
It is interesting to note that only three months after Ireland implemented its 100% smoke-free law, 97% of pubs were smoke-free, whereas five years after a voluntary agreement in the United Kingdom less than 1% of British pubs were smoke-free. The idea that businesses will suffer with a 100% ban is a myth. While not a single independent study has proved a smoking ban produced negative results for the economy, numerous studies in countries such as Italy, Ireland and Canada have shown that business on average remains the same or even increases with such smoking bans.

While the liberal theory perspective of “freedom of choice" is appreciated, it is still considered one-sided by Young's argument which neglects the choiceless passive smokers. A truly liberal belief expands to include the rights of everyone at heart. We should not allow our habits to dictate our stance when countless human lives hang in the balance. We should strive for the betterment of health in our society and uphold fundamental human rights. If that calls for the ban of smoking in all indoor public places, then we shall work toward that to save both ourselves and our children from the cycle of death and misery created by the tobacco epidemic.

  • Carly Jane Quinn

    ive been a smoker since i was 7 now im 32 i smoke atleast 9 packs a week and i feel great yall all just need to man up and stop crying.

    January 31, 2012

  • G. Baliki

    In reference to Mr. Rudy's response , as i assume that you have been following up on medical journals more frequently, first not everything published in any medical journal is true. The issue on smoking became a taboo in medical research, even if you find results were smoking is significantly protective, as i have found in my research on osteoporosis, you have to omit the variable from the study since no journal is ready to take the defense against the effects of smoking. I live abroad now and i am a non-smoker myself, and it is outrageous how they treat smokers, first they are subject to high taxation rate and then prohibited from smoking in public places. But the main question still, where all that money goes? health care systems, not in the US for sure, and if so maybe not all of it. Your freedom stops when a ban is forced would make a better title i assume!

    March 13, 2010

  • Ronald George Robinson MD (retired)

    The second-hand smoke sham is a whopping lie. no credible and truly objective science supports the junk science and the hate propaganda that is currently be spewed at will by the anti-smoking Nicotine-Nazis.

    March 13, 2010

  • U92

    Excellent response to the usual "the sky will fall" lies and distortions shovelled out by tobacco apologists. Well done!

    March 11, 2010

  • داريوس حرب

    The Lebanese goverment should ban the import of tobacco and fine smokers. This is the only way to fight cancer, reduce health expenses and misery .

    March 10, 2010

  • Loubna S

    Aside from all the harm that smoking and 2nd hand smoking cause, I don't understand why wherever I go out I end up smelling like an ashtray!!!!

    March 9, 2010

  • lina R.

    Let ‘s assume for the sake of the argument, that it is still controversial whether second hand smoking kills or not (although this is not the case), are the thousands of lives at stake worth taking that risk? It is as if you give a gun to psychopath who might or might not shoot, and the shot might or might not kill?!! All that just for the pleasure of smokers. Pollution is definitely a serious concern that should be tackled sooner rather than later but the same applies for smoking. You can smoke at your home, in designated places, anyplace where your pleasure does not violate my rights.

    March 9, 2010

  • Geo M

    The reason why smoking is not (outright) forbidden in Lebanon is that our failing health care system is not loosing enough money curing the sick for years before they pass away. Make no mistake, most of the bans in the west are initiated by health care & insurance lobbies. writing for or against in the press is also sourced from pro/ against groups. The (proven) fact is, live long enough, and smoking will kill you, second hand or otherwise. Smoking is murder.

    March 8, 2010

  • Rudy

    Just a quick response to Mr. Baliki: it has been proven without an inch of doubt that second hand smoking is as harmful as first hand smoking. One only has to look at the medical journals and at the massive amounts of liteature that has been published on that issue. I just read such an article a couple of months back. The name of the journal where it was publised slipped my mind but I can definitely get you the article in case you want to take a look at it. Second hand smoking kills and it's time we did something about it, and that includes the narguileh!

    March 8, 2010

  • Bob

    I totally agree with this. I find it very irresponsible for Micheal Young to be arguing the opposite. For once in Lebanon we're trying to do something good, and he attacks it. Strange.

    March 6, 2010

  • G. Baliki

    True that smoking indoors can be irritating for non-smokers. But the idea of a damaging and harmful effects of passive somking and ETS is still a myth, studies till this day havent concluded any definite outcomes and are still controversial. Controlling for other harmful emitatnts on the streets of lebanon is far more effective health-wise than banning smoking in public places. I have to agree with Mr. Young, it should be a matter of choice for rest , pubs to adopt the some-free agenda. a better simple idea would be splitting the pubs into smoking and non-smoking areas.

    March 6, 2010

  • Jean Shaheen

    Excellent response.I am non-smoker but after returning to Lebanon from Australia I believe I now need a chest x-ray because of what I'm breathing at pubs in Beirut. People just light their cigarettes next to you without asking if this disturbs anyone! I guess Mr. Young is a smoker himself. Otherwise he wouldn't have rushed to undermine the ban.

    March 5, 2010