Debate Forum Left, 10/25/11

Where there’s smoke, there’s ire

By Marianne Stanley

Marianne Stanley

One of the problems with having a multitude of freedoms in society is that some folks confuse it with license to do whatever they want. Each freedom carries with it a corresponding responsibility. We can have freedom of speech but that speech must not incite to riot. We can have freedom of assembly but that assembly must not block the flow of traffic. We can have freedom to enjoy our habits but not if that would endanger other people.
The airlines finally recognized that in 1988 when the first one banned smoking on U.S. flights of under two hours. By 1989, that had been changed to under six hours. At the time, the only thing louder than the firing up of the jet engines was the screaming of smokers, insisting airlines had no right to impinge on their freedom to smoke. Today, the ban has been in place for 20 years and there are no longer voices raised against it. We have adapted and adjusted our expectations.

Yet, here we go again! This time the brouhaha is over smoking in bars. Zeno’s, a Columbus bar, is making the argument that Ohio’s almost 5-year-old indoor smoking ban is unconstitutional as applied to his bar since it is a “violation of property rights.”

But here’s the thing. It isn’t. Property rights are not all-inclusive. Never have been; never will be. Instead, under law, they are a bundle of various rights that are split up in various ways. One may have the mineral rights to property and nothing else, or may have only a lifetime right to use it and no right to pass it on to anyone else. A person may have only a half-interest in land or just the right to use the property for a specific purpose. On top of that, no property owner may do anything he or she wants on their property. Michael Vick can attest to that. Dogfighting, cockfighting, drug houses, child pornography and meth labs are a few things that come to mind as prohibited uses for “private property.”

Under the law, one only has the right to swing one’s arm as far as another person’s face. We have no right to knowingly harm others. Our laws against assault, domestic violence and battery are the more obvious vestiges of this requirement. But it includes the less physical versions of aggression against others too. We may not yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. We may not have sex if we are HIV positive without telling our partner. We may not even double-park since we hem in another driver.

And this “unconstitutional” thing? Nope. The Constitution at both the federal and state level makes it perfectly clear that one of government’s roles is to “promote the general welfare.” Note that it doesn’t say, “the smoker’s welfare.” Government must always struggle to find the right balance between individual rights and the public good. There simply is no “one size fits all” policy in a nation of 300 million people. The majority of Ohio voters spoke almost five years ago when they voted in a complete ban on indoor smoking. How in the world can it be unconstitutional when the majority clearly willed it? And could someone please explain how serving the few at the expense of the many is constitutional in a democracy?

After all, smoking is now recognized as a serious health risk. A cigarette has 599 ingredients. A lit cigarette emits 4,000 chemical compounds, 43 of which are known carcinogens. Who, with a straight face, would suggest that it is the right thing to do to knowingly put all who enter his establishment at risk? Who is insensitive enough to call the government’s protection of its citizens from cancer-causing substances, unconstitutional?

This is nonsense. Of course, smokers have the right to smoke. But there’s a huge difference between suicide and homicide. Killing ourselves is a travesty; killing others is a crime. It really shouldn’t even take a law to stop people from smoking in public. There used to be a thing called “manners” that would stop people from smoking around others. Even before the health risks were known, it was customary for a smoker to ask a non-smoker if she minded that he smoked. Respect for another would do the trick in this situation.

And finally, let’s not demonize “government.” Government, after all, is “us.” It is the result of us voting in the people we thought would best serve us in meeting our needs and in keeping us reasonably safe and secure as we move through life. Government is our mail, our roads, our schools, fire stations, police force and traffic lights. Without it, there would be chaos. Anarchy is not a better choice!

Hopefully, we can see through all the smoke (sorry, I just couldn’t resist!) and mirrors and recognize that we all have to begin to do the hard work of really thinking things through for ourselves. Smokers can smoke wherever they won’t harm others. Hopefully, they will not only stand behind the smoking ban in bars but also will be careful not to smoke at home if they have children whose cells are far more susceptible to smoking’s damaging effects. It’s just called common courtesy. Surely, we can all manage that much for each other?

Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing throughout middle and high school. She can be reached at

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