Point My Right to Smoke
by Eric Eaton
Counterpoint Smoking Ban Pyschology
by Gabe Tourek
The recent passage of smoking bans in Michigan workplaces and on the University of Michigan campus heralds a new age for smokers in Ann Arbor. The bans will virtually make it impossible to smoke anywhere but outside or in your own home, relegating cigarettes to pretty much the same position enjoyed by marijuana. Whether or not this is a true representation of the people’s wishes by their legislators is an irrelevant issue: smoking rarely harms anyone else, and it is unfair to the people that choose to smoke.
Despite the years of research on secondhand smoking, it is hard to believe that secondhand smoke is actually harmful. The occasional inhalation of smoke in bars has never caused a nonsmoker to get lung cancer. Many of my relatives have gotten lung cancer due to their long term smoking, but I have never met someone who only occasionally exposed to cigarette smoke, contracted serious smoking-related health issues.
As it is now, secondhand smoke on campus is largely avoidable. Walking into any of the campus buildings, anyone who has been here for more than a few months knows exactly which benches smokers use. It is relatively easy to avoid getting smoke blown in your face because of the many doors our beautiful campus provides. With the new smoking bans, however, smokers may get creative, and the student body may no longer be able to rely on its foreknowledge of where they will encounter smoke, possibly increasing any health risks associated with secondhand smoke.
Yet fundamentally, it should not be the part of government policy to force people to quit smoking.
Instead, programs to encourage quitting should be put in place. Such programs as “TheTruth.com” have not only helped prevent people from beginning to smoke and encouraged smokers to quit, but have changed the public perception of smoking completely. The campaign brought smoking down from its “cool” pedestal and exposed the corporate corruption behind it.
This change in public perception is not strengthened by banning smoking; sadly, smoking becomes about the ban instead of about the illnesses it causes – it becomes something dangerous and fun, which appeals to even the best of us.
I do not dispute the dangers of smoking. The dangers of smoking are pretty much known to everyone, even children. The Citizens’ Commission to Protect the Truth has reported that 75 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds in the United States can accurately recall an advertisement from the campaign, and 90 percent of those respondents say that the ad was convincing. This kind of broad reach has brought the number of new smokers to a minimum. From a personal experience I can say I have not met anyone that started smoking less than a year ago since I came to this University in 2006. So why choose to ban smoking as opposed to investing in largely successful education campaigns?
Perhaps the goal of such legislation is to quiet the grumblings of a few vocal hypochondriacs. While getting rid of smoking areas in restaurants may be a reasonable solution, there is no need to go so overboard as to not allow smoking outside where secondhand smoke literally dissipates before it could inflict life-threatening harm. What is next? Loitering? Wearing unfashionable clothes?
As unnecessary as it is to most, the majority of nonsmokers are probably prepared to let this law go through without objection. It does not affect them and is not a major imposition on their rights. However, legislation such as this only supports the environment of chastisement against smokers, influencing them to think poorly of themselves.
These collections of concerns make me, at the very least, question the logic of these new bans. For Michigan smoking students, the administration’s ban on a personal habit is dubiously ethical. The University has a very large campus that is filled with many people with busy schedules and our government is restricting an activity that is essentially harmless when given a designated area and, moreover, not one to be regulated by other people’s decisions. When did government power extend itself into regulating how I make decisions about my body and my happiness?
The passage of a “smoking ban” by Michigan legislators at the end of 2009 comes on the heel of national state-based reform. Twenty-five states currently have indoor smoking bans, while several others exempt tobacconists, bars, and/or casinos. Michigan smokers may no longer smoke in a bar or business unless that business in a licensed tobacco dealer or a Detroit casino. Concurrently, University of Michigan officials announced last spring that the campus will be “smoke-free” effective July 1, 2010.
These new regulations are understood as attempts to curtail a negative behavior among smokers, to reduce the negative health externalities of second-hand smoking, and to prevent non-smokers from deciding to adopt the habit.
What does this mean for smokers’ “freedom to smoke,” on campus or in workplaces? There is little to be said for the benefits of smoking and nothing particularly special about it as a behavioral choice. Smoking causes lung cancer and other illnesses, but so do any number of other choices. Researchers recently announced that obesity has surpassed smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. A more pertinent question may be: how do we understand the state government’s and University administration’s decision to ban a harmful behavior from specific locations?
First, I think it is important to understand how these decisions came into existence. We elect our lawmakers and grant them the power to pass laws that are good for us. The fact that our representatives chose to ban workplace smoking should theoretically reflect a desire among the majority of Michigan’s populace for this legislation to have been passed. To push further, the republican model of representative government may indeed provide a more enlightened approach to decision-making regarding the smoking behaviors of actual Michigan smokers. If we understand smoking to be an addiction that an individual is incapable of quitting, then the decision to empower legislator’s inclination to ban smoking on behalf of oneself may demonstrate a deeper longing to be regulated.
If I smoke and know that I cannot quit (or support a ban), then I politically empower someone who can act as proxy for my health-concerned self even in direct opposition to the explicit political demands of my nicotine-addicted self. The obvious objection is that smokers are a minority in Michigan, but this hypothesis would still not explain the determined vehemence with which these bans were implemented.
What this possibility unearths, I think, is an entire realm of unconscious, psychological realities driving the political decision-making of individuals. The controversy of the workplace and campus smoking bans may reflect only the “hiddenness” of the true functioning of state legislating: to give us what we really want, over and above what which we actually lobby. Any number of affirming examples are available: the state’s negligent attitude towards high levels of racialized poverty in Detroit speaks to the structural/unconscious forms of racism that academics have been decrying for decades; or, annual budget problems demonstrate the unacknowledged gap between taxpayers’ asserted beliefs about funding decisions and the distanced reality of government budget-setting.
The fact that we may identify positive and negative examples of how state administration fulfills the truth of our unconscious political desires reflects first on who we are as political beings. If the state is the mirror of our political psychology, then we can identify good and bad impulses within the collective body through observed differences between public opinion and actual policy. While the state may reflect our hidden desires, there is no account in this model of that which determines those desires.
Thus, I think it is necessary to complicate the model: what if state administration fulfills our unconscious political desires because on some deeper, meta-unconscious level the state produces the relationship? We, as political beings, thus manufacture unconscious desires so that they can be translated into political realities. If the state legislative body weirdly operates as the actualizing medium of our most repressed desires, evaluating its actions may be a window into the truly real reality of our political selves.
The fact that there is a dissonance between recent smoking bans in Michigan and citizen response demonstrates some gap between political representation and political expression on the individual level. Undeniably, the relatively “hardline” policies banning smoking defer the questions we should be asking: why do people smoke in the first place, and why has our government chosen to ban smoking in specific locations as the means by which to reduce the activity?
About the Issue
Point author: Eric Eaton is a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in English. He currently measures his life in coffee spoons and cigarette butts but will learn to adapt to Michigan law in May.
Counterpoint author: Gabe Tourek is a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in Public Policy with a concentration in development and health.
Cover by: Meirav Gebler