Smokers defiantly, if dishonestly, respond with the claim that they have the right to smoke, even if it is not the most rational thing to do. But do they? This is a controversial issue, one that has immediate implications for public policy regarding smoking.
This paper demonstrates that smokers generally do not have the right to smoke in public places, in a wide variety of cases, because it is inconsistent with their duty to respect the right of others (to be free from harm).
Then a variety of arguments for smoking in public places presented. The underlying aim of this paper is to provide a moral guide to the formation of a public policy toward smoking behavior. Such a policy, paper will argue, is likely to have as its consequence the elimination of nonsmokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke. The paper will at the end explore several policy considerations that might lead to the elimination of exposure to secondhand smoke. The focus of paper, is on the so-called right to smoke, and what role it should play in the development of a just public policy regarding smoking, whatever that policy may be.
Background It is important that this distinction between activity and passivity not be confused with the more controversial distinction between doing something to another and letting something happen to another. The relevance of this distinction is often debated in the context of euthanasia. The general rule seems to be that one’s right to pursue an activity survives only so long as the exercise of that right does not infringe upon the right of another to be free from harm. The right to be free from harm is in some sense more basic than the rights one may have to perform certain activities. This “harm principle” is perhaps the fundamental liberty-limiting principle. (Goodin 1989)
Suppose there is a public room, say a bar, populated by smokers and nonsmokers, and individuals of both groups have the right to be present in the room. The air in the room is filled with smoke, and it is clear that the cause of this is the activity of the smokers. Since the nonsmokers have to breathe the smoky air they had no part in producing, the smokers are doing something to the non-smokers. Since both the smokers and the nonsmokers have equal right to be present in the room, the nonsmokers stand to smokers as victims stand to those who shoot them.
The non-smokers have actively placed themselves in the room, presumably, but they have not actively done anything to the smokers in the way that the smokers have actively done something to them. Nor have they actively sought to place themselves in a smoky environment, that responsibility belongs to the smokers.
If the nonsmokers are harmed by the presence of the smoke, then the smokers have violated the harm principle. The right to smoke persists only so long as the act of smoking does not conflict with the more basic right of nonsmokers to be free from harm. On the condition that they are causing harm, the smokers are obliged to refrain from smoking, and this remains true even if those doing the harm are unaware of the harm they are causing. (Feinberg 1985)
This places a burden on smokers to change their behavior to comply with the rights of nonsmokers. This inconvenience to smokers, which is often viewed as a harm to smokers, is asymmetrically related to the harm caused to nonsmokers; it is the smokers who are doing something to the nonsmokers, while the reverse is not true. This point is crucial in determining an appropriate policy when the interests of smokers and nonsmokers conflict. If harm is indeed being caused, public policy should prevent the smoker from smoking in this room.
The issue now turns on whether the smokers are harming the nonsmokers. There are at least three levels on which smoking may harm nonsmokers. The first involves the distasteful odor of cigarette smoke, in the air and in the clothes and hair of even nonsmokers, who are in the same room as a smoker, let us call this the level of annoyance.
The second involves the short-term physiological irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and lungs caused by the inhalation of smoke; let us call this the level of irritation. The third involves the long-term risk of disease caused by repeated exposure to secondhand smoke; let us call this the level of disease. At each of these three levels we must determine whether the harm is sufficiently significant and determine if the right to smoke should be curtailed.
Arguments Against Smoking in Public Places Annoyance. Smoke is annoying when one would simply prefer not to breathe it. This is an offense to, or intrusion upon, the nonsmoker, rather than an obvious harm, so it is unlikely that we are going to get a straightforward application of the harm principle. We must therefore be very careful to examine specific features of the situations in which this offense arises; only in this way will we be able to determine if annoyance is sufficient to militate against the moral right to smoke.
Consider a nonsmoker in his own home. Here the rights of property ownership and autonomy give weight to one’s preferences beyond what they might otherwise enjoy. Should someone be smoking in a nonsmoker’s home, the smoker surely must respect the nonsmoker’s preference to be free from secondhand smoke. In this respect, smoking is no different from other activities one simply does not want performed in one’s own home.
But suppose that the smoker is a friend, a business associate, or a superior. Because of these relationships, the nonsmoker may, as a matter of course, be made to feel some pressure to acquiesce to the smoker’s desire to smoke. For example, if it is his boss, he may be made to feel that his job or working conditions will be jeopardized if he “sticks to his guns” and refuses to allow smoking in his home. If it is a friend, he may feel that the friendship will be strained if he insists on his right to be free from secondhand smoke.
Social pressures of this sort are significant features of many actual situations and should be given moral weight. The nonsmoking homeowner has the ethical (and legal) right to stipulate policy in his or her home, and an offender should not be allowed to exert pressure, knowingly or otherwise, on the homeowner. (Torr 2000, p. 43-51)
Each nonsmoking individual is affected by every smoker with whom he comes into contact. This includes smoke in the workplace, restaurants, bars, and other public forums.
The level of annoyance can be much greater than any smoker might realize since it is not an individual smoker, but a team of smokers with which the nonsmoker must contend; and as a team, smokers constitute a powerful collective source of annoyance. Whether an annoyance can reach the level of moral status depends on just how annoyed one can get. If one is sufficiently annoyed at the presence of secondhand smoke, then it might very well be a moral issue, and it is hard to see how the smoker is in a position to challenge this.