Homer council puts rights above health in smoking debate

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

It's always interesting to observe how individuals and groups can hear the same information yet set decidedly different courses of action based on that information.

Take, for example, the facts surrounding the issue of smoking in public places. No one argues today about the dangers of smoking. They're well documented and have been for decades. No one argues about the dangers of secondhand smoke. They, too, are well documented. Secondhand smoke literally makes people sick, exacerbating hundreds of thousands of asthma cases and lower respiratory tract infections. It is a known human carcinogen responsible for at least 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year. It also is blamed for more than 35,000 cardiovascular deaths, according to the American Lung Association.

It is because smokers don't just harm their own health, but also the health of others, that there's been so much movement in recent years to create smoke-free workplaces and smoke-free public places.

This week, however, the Homer City Council decided to buck that trend. The majority of council members believed the issue was more about civil rights than about smoking and decided not to pursue either of the two smoking ordinances before it.

Both the Kenai and Soldotna city councils have passed bans on smoking in restaurants. Those bans took effect this year. The councils all heard similar arguments for and against the bans.

Those in favor of the smoking bans argued something like this: "Smoking is not only obnoxious, it's also very bad for your health. While a smoking ban places some financial burden on some of the restaurant owners, what is the price of clean air? Death? Illness? Seventeen thousand dollars to put in a new ventilation system?"

Those against the smoking bans argued something like: "This is an issue of private enterprise. We don't need to lobby our government to pass laws like this. We need to lobby the restaurant owners. If there's enough call for this, we will have no-smoking places."

There are civil rights questions on both sides of the debate. For example, one person's right to smoke stops right when the smoke gets to another person's nose, said some. Others argued, however, that government bodies have no right to legislate health or moral issues, and the ordinances usurp business owners' decision-making rights.

No matter how harmful tobacco is and reasonable people don't argue that point there's the issue of tobacco being a legal substance. That issue alone leads to a multitude of questions: If it's so harmful and so obviously a public health issue, why is it still legal? Why is it so accessible? What kind of mixed message do we send children when we preach the dangers of tobacco but still make it readily available? Or worse, when we preach the dangers of tobacco and light up in front of them? Why do smart people continue to smoke knowing it very well could cut their life short or lead to any number of illnesses and harm those who happen to be the victims of their secondhand smoke?

In a perfect world, no one would smoke and everyone would be healthier and wealthier as a result. Alas, it's not a perfect world.

And while it's noble to want to protect a community's health, Homer council members took an even more noble action than did the those in Soldotna and Kenai: protecting people's rights.

Government cannot and should not make every decision for the public. Trying to dictate good health makes poor policy. Will government next want to mandate 30 minutes of daily activity for all of us or force all residents to eat at least five servings of fruits and veggies every day and forego their fast-food fixes? Those things would certainly be good for our individual and collective health, not to mention our pocketbooks, but it's not government's job to do that.

As one Homer council member noted this week, the best way to create a smoke-free environment is through education, not legislation. Such an emphasis would focus energy on making the next generation a generation of nonsmokers. It would allow the market to determine the demand for smoking or nonsmoking establishments. Business owners would choose whether they wanted to serve smokers or nonsmokers. Nonsmoking workers who wanted to protect their health would work at places where smoking was not allowed. Consumers would frequent those establishments that catered to their desires.

The Homer council understands that it's far better that the public lead the way in creating a community where the air is clean not because of a government mandate, but because that's what the people in the community voluntarily choose to do. Because it's the right thing to do.

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