Should Smoking Be Banned in Public Places? How Far Are We Willing To Go?

smoking in public places

Since the early 1990s, most states and cities have banned smoking in public indoor spaces such as bars, restaurants, and offices. These bans were sparked by contemporary research that, for the first time, proved the harmful, carcinogenic effects of secondhand smoke. Over the past few years, cities around the country have been proposing (and sometimes passing) bans on smoking in public outdoor spaces such as parks, bus stops, and even sidewalks. These outdoor proposals have fueled a lively debate between public health advocates and opponents who see such bans as an infringement on individual rights.

It’s a complicated dilemma that reveals the murky complexities of social engineering, civil liberties, and addiction treatment. Since tobacco use is largely perceived to be a bad habit that squanders money and lives, should smoking be banned in public places? If so, how far are we as a society willing to go in order to police our behavior?


How It’s Changed Over The Years

smoking in public places 3It’s easy to forget that the smoke-free indoor spaces are still a relatively recent phenomenon. In many states and countries around the world, restaurants, bars, and offices still allow smoking, but the trend is decidedly leaning towards a smoke-free future.

The dangers of smoking indoors are generally acknowledged throughout the world. Extensive research has proven that people who work in spaces with cigarette smoke have an elevated risk of getting lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking-related ailments, even if they’ve never smoked a cigarette in their life. A consensus generally emerged from the public that banning smoking indoors was a necessary act for maintaining public health, and governments at the local and state levels have acted to outlaw indoor smoking. Some anti-smoking advocates have now shifted their energies towards enacting even more wide-ranging smoking bans. New York City has been at the head of the pack by prohibiting smoking in most city-owned outdoor spaces, such as parks, waterfronts, and monuments. But how far are we willing to go to avoid the potential risks of second-hand smoke?


Arguments For A Smoking Ban

There are four main arguments for banning smoking in public places.

The first is the issue of secondhand smoke. Ban advocates argue that “sidestream” smoke from cigarettes can harm individuals standing downwind, much in the same way that it does indoors.

The second is that cigarette butts are a form of litter. Since most smokers prefer to drop their butts on the ground, ban advocates argue that the best way to keep the streets clean is to ban smoking altogether. There have also been efforts to ban smoking in parks, due to the fact that cigarettes pose a major wildfire risk if not disposed of properly.

The third argument for outdoor bans is that non-smokers should not have to be subjected to the image of someone smoking in public. Many parents would prefer that their children not be exposed to the sight and smell of people smoking cigarettes. They feel that smoking instead should, like alcohol, be permitted only in non-public spaces.

Finally, outdoor smoking ban advocates argue that they are doing society – and ultimately the smokers themselves – a favor by banning the act. The theory is that if smokers are sufficiently discouraged from lighting up in public, they will be more likely to quit and, therefore, avoid developing a smoking-related illness. Society also benefits because our health care system will spend less money on treating preventable illnesses caused by smoking.


Arguments Against A Public Smoking Ban

But not everyone is enamored with the idea of prohibiting smoking in all public areas. Many people, including a sizeable number of non-smokers, are opposed to the idea of banning outdoor smoking on philosophical grounds. They view such bans to be actions of an ever-creeping “nanny state” which seeks to regulate and punish all sorts of private behaviors, even at the expense of our civil liberties.

smoking in public places 2Cigarettes are, after all, perfectly legal to buy and smoke in the United States. Ban opponents therefore argue that the government doesn’t have the authority to regulate what people do to their own bodies in a public, open-air environment. Some also believe that banning smoking in public could push our society down a slippery slope of behavioral control laws. This view is mostly a reaction to the pro-ban argument that children and young people shouldn’t be exposed to the sight of someone engaging in an unhealthy activity, lest they try to mimic it. But where exactly does that line of thinking end? If we ban smoking outside because it’s unhealthy, shouldn’t we also ban the consumption of fast food and ice cream in public in order to combat obesity?

Political philosophies aside, the most persuasive argument against outdoor smoking bans is that there’s very little scientific evidence to back them up. In fact, a lot of the research indicates that banning smoking in public areas wouldn’t do much to improve public health. A recent study found that there was virtually no elevated health risk for people exposed to secondhand smoke in outdoor areas.

This lack of scientific proof is cited by opponents who argue that outdoor smoking bans are more about stigmatizing and banishing smokers in a punitive manner than protecting public health. While there is ample evidence that being in a smoky indoor space exposes you to carcinogens, the same cannot be said about outdoor secondhand smoke. Furthermore, non-smokers choose to put up with many other types of pollutants when they go outside. In many cities, carbon monoxide from car emissions is the far more prevalent – and similarly toxic – air pollutant, yet nobody has proposed a blanket ban on cars.


Why Prohibition Isn’t Enough

The truth is that bans on smoking in public places are, as their often critics claim, social engineering measures designed to disincentivize the act of smoking. Because our society has reached a consensus that smoking should be discouraged, many people feel that it is the government’s responsibility to “denormalize” the act of smoking around other people by outlawing the behavior outright. The theory is that if smoking becomes socially stigmatized to the point of invisibility, more people will make the decision to quit, and fewer young people will choose to take up the habit.

The main flaw with this Pavlovian approach to quitting is that smoking is not merely a personal choice – rather, it is motivated by an addiction to nicotine, which has proven to be one of the most difficult drugs in the world to quit. While the goals of smoking ban advocates are well-intentioned, simply outlawing behavior has never been the most effective strategy for getting people to quit their stubborn addictions.

A typical smoker who is no longer allowed to smoke in a park on his lunch break will, on average, find the nearest alleyway to smoke in. Most smokers will endure extra hassles if it means they can get their nicotine fix, and that is precisely why social ostracization alone cannot “help” most of them quit for good. If anything, they force smokers to cling to their addiction even more tightly, safely out of public view. At their worst, outdoor bans increase the alienation smokers feel without helping them gain any control over their addictions. It fails to solve the deeper issue, much like how bans on panhandling don’t eliminate the problem of homelessness; they merely displace it.

The most productive and compassionate approach to the public health issue of smoking is to treat smokers as addicts rather than willful nuisances. When treating addictions, the addict’s attitude and mental state are crucial. Cessation techniques that focus on psychologically overcoming nicotine addiction, such as hypnotherapy, have produced better long-term outcomes than laws designed to banish smokers from public view.


Kerry Gaynor

Kerry’s purpose and overarching objective in developing his Method since he began thirty years ago has always been the same: to help save lives. Addictions or ailments, whether it is smoking cigarettes or over eating, can feel a lot like being a prisoner or a slave to your addiction. Kerry has experienced so much fulfillment from helping people unchain themselves from their addictions that it is the only thing he has ever cared to do since his very first client.



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