The health effects of second-hand smoking is one of the fiercely debated topics by policy makers and lobbyists in all countries. This debate has come to the fore again, at least in the Indian media and blogosphere, following the ban on smoking in public places.
A problem that I face almost everyday: when I get out of the subway and run to my office every morning -- when I'm panting and breathing heavily -- the sidewalk is hogged by a series of smokers. I usually try to get ahead of the smoker right in front of me only to find there's more. I don't know if going through this cycle everyday for a few years is going to give me lung cancer, what I do know is that it gives me a bad headache and nausea immediately.
Smoking in bars, restaurants and other such 'public places' has been banned for a long time in Canada. What's interesting, though, is that these are places that I can actually avoid. It's the 'public space' that I'm more concerned about. Especially busy sidewalks where one out of five is always smoking, making it virtually impossible to escape it. That gets us to the question on infringement of others' rights. If I called for a smoking ban on roads and parks, am I infringing on the smokers' rights to pleasure themselves? or is it the other way round? Whose rights is superior here?
Personally, this issue is a little too complex for me to take a stance. Because, I'm a proponent of the "right" to self-inflicted harm -- through drugs, adventure sports or masochistic outbursts -- as long as it doesn't drag others into it. But it's a very problematic stance in that people who "care" about you are affected invariably. It's even more problematic in countries like Canada where the State guarantees comprehensive health care to all its citizens. If I jumped from a building trying to kill myself and ended up alive with a broken spine, the State will not only prosecute me for attempted suicide, it will also spend public money to get my back straightened. (India's health care system may not be as good, but legally they are obliged to do the same.)
Cigarette is one of the heavily taxed commodities in Canada. The rationale behind it, in my opinion, is similar to auto insurance. A driver who is statistically more probable to get into an accident pays more premium. The same logic is applied in self selected health insurances: a person more prone to physical ailments -- generally based on his/her medical history and habits -- would be charged more premium. But in universal health care systems taxing the product directly is the only way to balance out, at least in principle, the extra burden caused by the high risk population. However, I'm not sure if kitchen knives and roofing equipment are taxed as much.
What's ironic in all of this is the opinions voiced by some self proclaimed anarchists. The idea of individual right stems only from the acceptance of a statehood and its legal system. Any system that is completely anarchic will still go through prohibition, compensation, risk and consensus before a practice is established as 'acceptable'. A characteristic shared by most States. So if the State deems that my right to not have a headache is superior to others' right to give me one, there is little to argue over it (unless it's with the State itself). Of course, the anarchists do not have any other option because they exist, in most cases, within a State. For they cannot escape statehood and still proclaim the space that gives them the "right" to be anarchic.
So all the talk about rights boils down to one perspective: I think smoking should be banned wherever I go. And if I were a smoker, I would probably say the opposite.