OPINION: Tobacco companies deserve everything lawmakers throw at them. Their profits are built on human misery. However, it may be time to cut smokers a break.
The suggestion that smoking be banned from Wellington's Golden Mile is an instance of the anti-smoking brigade going a step too far.
Smoking is not illegal and it should not be. It is not the job of government to tell adults what they can and cannot do. If people want to engage in activities that are harmful to their health they have a right to do so, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others in the process. The role of government should be limited to ensuring that those who engage in harmful activities do so with their eyes open.
Once upon a time that was not the case. Before the effects of smoking were properly understood tobacco companies were able to publish advertisements claiming that smoking soothed sore throats, reduced weight and prevented heart disease. But nobody who picks up a cigarette today is under any illusions. Smoking, once mistakenly believed to be a mark of sophistication, is now recognised as a dirty, smelly, addictive habit that damages not only the health of users, but also those around them.
Hence it was entirely appropriate for a previous government to ban smoking in workplaces, bars, cafes and restaurants. Non-smokers should not be forced to breathe in tobacco smoke because they happen to be in the same enclosed space as smokers.
For the same reason it made eminently good sense to ban tobacco company advertising and sponsorship, ban cigarette displays in retail outlets and require health warnings and grisly photographs to be printed on tobacco packets.
Smoking is not healthy and it is not socially acceptable. Tobacco companies should not be allowed to get away with pretending either.
However, the Otago University medical researchers who have called upon Wellington City Council to ban smoking from Lambton Quay, Willis St and Courtenay Place would be hard-pressed to argue that a whiff of smoke from a passing smoker is any more harmful than carbon monoxide fumes from passing vehicles or that allowing pedestrians to light up on the Golden Mile gives smoking an undeserved social cachet.
The reality is the opposite. The smokers who huddle together in cold doorways are not an advertisement for smoking, but an advertisement for non-smoking. Who but an addict would brave Wellington's elements to satisfy an unhealthy craving.
The legislative changes made over the past 2 1/2 decades are working. Since the Smoke-free Environments Act was introduced in 1990 the proportion of adults smoking has fallen from 28 per cent to just under 20 per cent. The number is still too high, particularly among Maori, 40 per cent of whom smoke, but the trend is headed in the right direction.
There is no need to further punish and marginalise the unfortunates who cannot help themselves. If legislators want to do more, they should target tobacco companies, not their customers.
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