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October 10, 2012 at 9:44 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

Smokers' Rights?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Last week, a patient complained to me that smokers are losing their rights. Up until then, I had never put tobacco use and rights together. I live in Michigan, where smoking in public places has been banned, but I remember when every restaurant had a smoking section and public places had plenty of ash trays for the convenience of smokers. It used to be that tobacco companies were free to advertise anywhere they chose and even to give out samples, but this culture has dwindled - more in some states than others.

But what rights SHOULD smokers have in our society?

The Right to Smoke in Public Places

Should restaurants have smoking sections? Should a person have the right to smoke in a public building? Most states have cracked down considerably on this, and smokers are now forced to go outside to get their nicotine. Sometimes, they even need to leave the grounds entirely if they want to light up. 

However, while I can understand the frustration this must bring smokers, as I see it, smoking sections in public places are like peeing sections in pools. As Americans, we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is an important qualifier, however. These rights to actions must not infringe upon these same right that others have. That person five feet away from a smoker has the right to clean air and enjoyment of their meal in a toxin-free environment. And what if cigarette smoke triggers an asthma attack in someone?

Considerations like this make it difficult for me to find sympathy for those who chose to stand outside if they want to smoke.

The Bottom Line? It's your choice if you want to inhale the nicotine, lead, arsenic, and polonium 210 found in cigarette smoke, but don't subject others to it.

The Right to Smoke Outside

Smoking not only pollutes the body, but also pollutes the environment. Tobacco smoke contains over 200 toxins and a significant number of them are carcinogens (cancer causing). Some are even radioactive. These substances are not even allowed in landfills, and, yet, people allow them into their lungs and the air around them with each cigarette. Beyond air, cigarette butts create a nuisance and a hazzard. Discarded butts thrown out of cars are the cause of many forest fires. Cigarette butts take and average of 75 years to biodegrade!

The Bottom Line? It may be your right to smoke, but not to leave butts on the ground or ignite forest fires.

The Right to Smoke in General

Our country is in a healthcare crisis. The government is searching for solutions and taking a more active role. Considering that smoking-related heart disease and cancer top the list of healthcare costs, a must-examine opportunity exists for prevention - both in regards to death and dollars.

If it comes to socialized medicine in our country, should smokers pay for smoking-related illness? America already taxes cigarettes heavily, but most of this is diverted elsewhere. As with other "sin taxes," such as a alcohol and gambling, a trivial proportion goes to healthcare and doesn't come close to covering the damage. The sad conditions in my state of Michigan is such that the government would soon shut down in bankruptcy if everyone stopped smoking, drinking, and gambling. This fact, combined with the millions in lobbying funds from the tobacco companies means that little will likely be done to prevent the ills caused by smoking. Unfortunately, on the superficial and more immediate level, it is in a politician's best interest for people to keep smoking.

The Bottom Line? America has a hypocritical relationship with tobacco and healthcare. Stronger solutions for illness related to smoking are needed and much more than additional taxation on tobacco.


Cigarettes and other tobacco products are legal for those over the age of 18. People, therefore, have the right to use them. They do not, however, have the right to expose others unwillingly to the unhealthy environment they create.

What are your views?

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1 Comment

  • I would love to see a peeing section in a pool. Seriously, that was some awesome writing.

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