Common Error No. 100


100. "Nobody should be free to smoke in public places."

There are many things which people do in "public places" – a concept which now includes private property open to members of the public – which others find unpleasant. The question is whether they do significant harm to others. It seems well established that many smokers harm themselves, and are at risk of incurring diseases thereby. This does not justify state intervention, any more than our consumption of unhealthy food and drink justifies it. The state can warn us, but the behavioural decision in the light of that knowledge is our own. Most smokers do not appear to engage in criminal activity in support of or in consequence of their habit.

There is less evidence that passive smoke harms third parties. People who share living space over the years with heavy smokers might incur greater risks, but there is little to suggest that non-smoking patrons of bars and clubs stand a significantly greater health risk if others smoke. The bus which spews diesel fumes onto a crowded pavement, especially at the level at which children breathe, might well prompt greater health risks. Those who cough and sneeze in public places undoubtedly pose health risks to others, while the thoughtless use of mobile phones on trains and in restaurants might raise the stress levels of those who have to suffer it to health-damaging levels. Society usually takes the view that there must be a significant risk to others before it intervenes.

Some of those who support smoking bans claim that most smokers welcome them because it helps them to give up. Very few cigar smokers, also banned in public places, want to quit, though. And although many people would like to lose weight, few would regard this as a justification for society to ban caloric foods in order to help them diet. The principle should be consistent, and not single out smokers to ban.