When there’s smoke there’s fire

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • February 12, 2014

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How much can we limit public smoking?
How much can we limit public smoking?

Despite the best efforts of the government, lung cancer, and our mothers, people still choose to smoke tobacco. It would seem that smokers have accepted the risks of their hobby and have chosen to carry on with it anyway. It is entirely within their rights as citizens to do so. Regardless of how you feel about smoking, people have recognized this is lawful behavior. But because of its tendency to cause diseases later in life, legislators have been placing extremely heavy regulations on the sale and consumption of cigarettes. From aggressive warning labels to visually disturbing public service announcements, the government has done everything in its power to keep tobacco out of American life.

One of the more overt measures the government has taken is the smoking bans that have been imposed to varying degrees in every state. The law states that nothing may be smoked in any “enclosed public space,” which includes restaurants, movie theaters, office buildings, and retail stores. Other than a few exemptions in a few states, the only place left to smoke indoors is one’s own home. While I don’t necessarily agree with the absolute nature of the law, I understand why it was put in place. Secondhand smoke is a real thing, and it’s true that people shouldn’t be forcibly subjected to it.

Smoking outdoors is a different ball game. Unless the smoker is standing right next to someone, nonsmokers aren’t going to breathe in air any worse than the car exhaust that’s already floating around the city.  Yet Massachusetts still feels justified in placing a smoking ban on Boston Common. There is no reason for a smoking ban on a place that can’t be affected by the problem of secondhand smoke.

Banning smoking on the Common actually worsens the problem of secondhand smoke for nonsmoking citizens. It can be reasonably assumed that rather than quit smoking, smokers will smoke on the sidewalks. The Common is a large, mostly flat area of land whereas the city sidewalks are narrow and cramped. Due to the new ban, more smokers are going to have to stand right next to people. We’ve forced smokers to move to the one place where they can affect other nonsmokers.

Environmentalists argue that the ban will help reduce litter on the Common. After all, cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item in America according to CBS New York. Surely the ban will prevent squirrels from choking on discarded filters. Again, we’re simply pushing the problem to a different part of the city where it can do more harm. Smokers that litter aren’t going to stop just because they’ve been forced out of the Common. Instead of dropping their ashes in the grass, they’ll drop them on the sidewalk.

As nonsensical as this law is, there is a silver lining. According to Nick Martin, the director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission, the law is meant to be enforced primarily by citizens, as in, folks simply ask each other to put out their cigarettes. Lawmakers sincerely believe that this is going to work, which I find astounding. For some reason, the government expects civilians to properly enforce a law when there are several laws that police officers can’t (or sometimes just won’t) enforce themselves.  

As much as America loves to demonize smokers, we have to accept that there are only so many ways to keep them at bay from society. Imposing unenforceable bans only serves to waste public resources and perpetuate the myth that smokers are inherently bad people. We’ve already forced smokers out of restaurants, bars, clubs—pretty much anywhere fun. Can’t we at least let them keep the boring places?