A Breath of Fresh Air

CANTABRIGIANS MAY SOON GAIN some new legal protection from second-hand smoke. The Cambridge City Council heard testimony last week on a proposed law that would ban smoking in public places and limit it in the workplace. The law would not apply to dormitories or to restaurants, which are already required by a city ordinance to reserve at least one quarter of their seats for non-smokers. The council ought to make the new proposal law as soon as possible. It will provide welcome relief for the city's non-smokers without making unreasonable demands on those who smoke.

Opponents of the proposed law, who have called it an invasion of individual rights, have gotten their arguments backward. What right is more basic: to indulge in a personal pleasure that injures anyone in the vicinity or to breathe clean air? The proposal would disallow smoking only when other people are involuntarily affected--in workplaces employers and employees could still agree to set aside areas for smoking. In places where passersby have no choice but to breathe the air, it is hardly unreasonable to prohibit an activity that presents such a known hazard to the public health.

A recent report prepared for the National Research Council found that numerous studies "persuasively link" passive smoking to lung cancer in non-smoking spouses of smokers. Chronic exposure to tobacco smoke in the workplace is also deleterious to the health of non-smokers, according to a 1980 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Passive tobacco smoke is America's most dangerous airborne carcinogen and is estimated to be two orders of magnitude more harmful than carcinogens currently regulated as hazardous air pollutants under the Federal Clean Air Act.

The time when tobacco lobbies can credibly defend unrestricted smoking as a vital personal liberty is long past. Passage of a smoking ban in Cambridge will finally recognize the more fundamental rights of people not to be involuntarily poisoned. We hope it will set a standard for the nation to follow.

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