Editorial: Care needed so rights don't go up in smoke

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Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

Any move to restrict smoking should strike a deft balance. On the one hand, there is people's right to be protected from second-hand smoke. On the other, there are the rights of the one in five people who enjoy a pastime that remains legal.

That second right tends to be disregarded by public health advocates and others who vilify cigarette smoking and are keen to make the country smoke-free. That is again evident in the push to get the Auckland Council to ban smoking in all public outdoor areas in the city.

The move, proposed by the Auckland Regional Public Health Service, is backed by the Auckland, Counties-Manukau and Waitemata district health boards. If implemented, it would prohibit smoking in Auckland's open spaces, parks, sportsfields and playgrounds, as well as in malls and pedestrian areas. This is said to have two aims - "to protect children from second-hand smoke ... and, ultimately, to prevent uptake of smoking among young people".

Few people, including the increasingly resigned bands of smokers, would object to targeted attempts to protect the public from second-hand smoke. It is surprising, for example, that smoking is not already prohibited at Mt Smart Stadium.

Local playgrounds are, similarly, obvious candidates for a ban. This stricture should, however, be reserved for areas where non-smokers are unable to gain relief from second-hand smoke in their immediate vicinity. The sort of blanket ban being advocated is altogether too much of a sledgehammer.

The balance between the rights of smokers and non-smokers is probably best served by recognising that the optimum situation sees smokers lighting up outdoors in the company of others who enjoy the practice. But this should be in areas where non-smokers can avoid second-hand smoke without being unduly inconvenienced. Any effort to restrict smoking along the lines now being suggested might simply prompt a backlash and would create potentially greater hazards. Parents banned from smoking in public outdoor areas would, for example, likely compensate by lighting up more frequently in their cars and homes. The threat of second-hand smoke to their children, which may now be relatively minor, could, perversely, escalate. Doubtless, public health lobbyists would react by suggesting smoking should also be banned in the home and in cars. That, however, would represent a dangerous intrusion into areas considered to be people's own business.

It is difficult to see how such a comprehensive ban would stop the young from taking up smoking. Over the years, a multitude of measures have damned and discouraged the habit. They have succeeded in so far as smokers are now a much-maligned group. But they have not managed to make much of a dent in the percentage of people who choose to smoke. Nor is there anything to suggest that if the Auckland Council accepted this latest proposal, much would change.

Research and practice has proved time and again that lifting the tax on tobacco, as happens haphazardly and relatively rarely, is the most effective way to reduce the number of smokers. Young people, in particular, are deterred by increased prices.

This, not a ban on smoking in all public outdoor areas, stops children picking up the habit. It also means the balance of rights is not skewed almost totally in favour of non-smokers.

- NZ Herald

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