Revoking the licence to ill

Smoking is nothing if not an act of generosity. Non-smokers get to share tobacco with their smoking friends at bus stops, in doorways, in restaurants and at bars without ever paying for cigarettes or craving nicotine. The stuff is just given away, free of charge, to all of us and it’s time to stop the giving.

Among the more compelling reasons for legislating a complete ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and other shared spaces is that it could seriously curb the number of people who become addicted to nicotine. The advantage of fewer addicts, of course, is less cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema and keeping that minty-fresh smell after a night on the town. A legislative ban could give us these perks in at least two ways.

First, a ban would send a strong message about the unacceptability of smoking to youth, the demographic that we need to target if we wish to spare people death and disease from the nicotine addiction. Sixty percent of smokers start before the age of 15. Adults have the "right" to choose to smoke, but children have a greater right to live without the temptation. The numbers speak for themselves; we are failing in our societal responsibility to keep youth from addiction. Intervening at this early critical period by reducing the appearance of smoking in the lives of children would have the effect of making smoking less of a likelihood for all but the most curious.

Also, the further to the fringe of society a behaviour is, the fewer the people who will indulge in it. Thus we have more binge alcoholics than pot smokers and more pot smokers than crack addicts. Fewer people will be willing to expend the energy to show their token gesture of rebellion if that token gesture is a bigger pain in the ass.

Second, by reducing the opportunities people have to smoke, we do the not-yet-addicted and trying-to-quit a favour. Places that have implemented bans on smoking, such as California and Victoria, B.C., have shown no loss of business for their nightclubs or restaurants. What this says is that people, including smokers, are going to bars and eateries and not smoking. The hours smokers are usually most active have turned into addiction downtime. By making smoking an inconvenience that is not associated with socializing and good times, we have potential puffers getting past those crucial early years without getting hooked. By reducing the presence of smoking in our society, we would eventually reduce the numbers of smokers.

Even rejecting the possibility that a ban would positively impact those who currently smoke or those who might start, a ban is a good idea. Smoking is the worst of all vices because it is not limited to the people indulging themselves, but forced on those around them. Tobacco-related diseases take the lives of non-smokers every year, with vulnerable groups like asthmatics being the hardest hit.

The impact of tobacco is not as spectacular as that of illicit drugs, but the true toll is far heavier on society. Tobacco-related illness is responsible for 45,000 deaths per year in Canada. That is more than all of the alchohol and illicit drug-related deaths combined. If we, as a society, have determined that the deaths from drunk driving and heroine overdoses are not acceptable, why do we allow far greater numbers to die every year from consuming cigarettes and from second-hand smoke?

A ban on smoking is not a condemnation of those who smoke. It is an attempt to deal with a serious problem whose repercussions affect us all. The smoker who claims they are glad that they started and are happy to mentor the local 15-year-old with free butts and friendly encouragement is a rare smoker indeed. Most would be grateful to have been spared the struggle in the first place. The point of a ban is not to punish those who happily or unhappily smoke, but to spare others the freedom to have an addiction that costs us family and friends.

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