Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Secondhand smoke column draws fire.

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:03 AM |  

In today’s Pioneer Press, responding to my argument that secondhand smoke is a personal and not a “public” health issue requiring government intervention, state representative Jim Rhodes and Marc Manley, director of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota’s center for tobacco reduction and health improvement ask the question, “When is a substance that annually kills tens of thousands of innocent bystanders not a public health threat?”

Unfortunately, rather than address the three criteria for public intervention I detailed in my column, they choose to answer their own question with innuendo about “political spin” and a selective reading of what I wrote.

They state my claim is that secondhand smoke is not a “public” health issue because “no one is forced to patronize or seek employment at a smoking establishment.” That’s very true, but it is only one of three criteria for defining a “public” health hazard versus a widespread individual health concern. The relevant section of my column, which they conveniently ignore makes the complete case.

Yes, smoking and secondhand smoke pose a health threat. A wayward whiff of secondhand smoke is no reason to go "Chicken Little," and statistics attributing death and illness to secondhand smoke proceed more from political agenda than scientific rigor, but it's tough to deny that a room engulfed in the blue haze
of cigarette smoke is not hazardous to a person's health.

Nonetheless, a bar and restaurant smoking ban, statewide or local, doesn't pass the test of a public health problem requiring government intervention. Public health/government intervention is at issue only when people are exposed to risks to which they have not consented and which pose dangers to the community at large from which individuals cannot realistically protect themselves.

No one is forced to patronize or seek employment at a smoking establishment. Diseases caused by cigarette smoke are not contagious, so there's no risk to the community. It's easy for individuals to protect themselves from the danger of secondhand smoke — don't patronize or seek employment at smoking establishments.

Rhodes and Manley go onto cite examples of longstanding laws pertaining to restaurants that they claim my position would invalidate. To the contrary, if they apply the objective criteria, they would see the criteria support those regulations.

Take the case of regulations pertaining to food safety. First criterion -- they protect patrons from risks to which they did not consent. When a person goes into a restaurant they do not consent to eat bad food. Second criterion -- food borne disease affects the community at large. All food-serving establishments are equally susceptible. Third -- individual restaurant patrons cannot reasonably protect themselves from bad restaurant food. Short of squirming maggots, there’s no way to tell if the food being served is safe or not.

Rhodes’s and Manley’s second argument is more germane, but still not on point. Government should NOT “turn a blind eye toward workplaces full of radioactive waste, asbestos, fire hazards and other dangers.” Again, revert to objective criteria.

First criterion -- dangers such as those cited by Rhodes and Manley pose risks that individuals do not consent to. In the case of radioactive waste, it’s invisible as are asbestos fibers. A person can be exposed without being aware. Fire hazards extend beyond one person’s property to another’s. Second criterion -- all three of these dangers effect society at large -- a nuclear accident, the once-widespread use of asbestos insulation (even in public buildings) and an out-of-control fire. Third criterion -- an individual can’t protect himself from a risk he can’t see or reasonably anticipate. Regulation is legitimate.

Contrast with secondhand smoke in a bar or restaurant. First criterion -- a person knows upon entering an establishment of the risk and chooses whether or not to accept it. Second criterion -- the impact is only on those people that by choice are on private property where smoking is allowed, not the community at large. Third criterion -- an individual can reasonably protect herself by not patronizing smoking establishments.

No doubt Rhodes and Manley have a genuine concern for people’s health. However, they should also have a healthy respect for private property rights and an interest in criteria for public intervention as opposed to arbitrary government action that, more often than not, reflects the real “political spin” of robbing the few to benefit the many.