A Right Not to Smoke?


IN JANUARY 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General published a report that both worried and pleased many who do not smoke cigarettes. The report said that a burning cigarette can be as lethal for the non-smoker who breathes it as for the smoker who puffs it. This worried nonsmokers, of course, because it confirmed that all the health hazards the Surgeon General warned smokers about in his famous 1964 report--lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and the rest--were hazards they faced as well, merely because they lived and worked with smokers. But the 1972 report also pleased non-smokers: Here, at last, were solid medical reasons to restrict smoking in public.

Since the 1972 report, several states (Utah, Nebraska, Connecticut) have passed some restriction on smoking in public and one state (Arizona) has completely banned smoking in theaters, concert halls, art galleries, museums, libraries and buses. These state laws, along with similar ones passed by country and city governments, are necessary public health measures. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has enacted no legislation protecting the rights of non-smokers, despite the efforts of freshman Rep. Lois Pines (D-Newton).

Pines is allergic to cigarette smoke. When people around her light up, her eyes become teary and she begins to cough. Last year she introduced House Bill 1688, which would establish separate smoking and nonsmoking sections in all public places in Massachusetts. The House Ways and Means Committee killed the bill, and Pines introduced it again this year. It will probably die once more. "Next to the oil industry, the cigarette industry is the most powerful," Pines says bitterly, explaining why her bill has not passed. But there is a more fundamental explanation. Apparently, most Massachusetts legislators do not recognize what the Surgeon General reported in 1972.

It is hard to believe that legislators would defeat the Pines Bill if they understood the findings of the Surgeon General's report and related studies. It is equally hard to believe that smokers would continue to foul the public air if they realized what they are doing to non-smokers.

Non-smokers who breathe "second-hand smoke" (the Surgeon General calls it "passive inhalation") suffer the same adverse consequences as smokers. Seconds after breathing cigarette smoke, the non-smoker's heart beats faster, his blood pressure rises, and the carbon monoxide in his blood increases. The non-smoker might even face a greater danger from cigarettes than the smoker. The cigarette filter often protects the smoker; the non-smoker has no such protection and must breathe the smoke that wafts his way from the cigarette's end. That unfiltered smoke contains more cadmium than is contained in filtered smoke. (Cadmium, in large doses, is connected with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and hypertension). Unfiltered smoke also contains almost twice the tar and nicotine of filtered smoke. A study in Germany revealed that a non-smoker in a closed room where several cigarettes have recently been smoked inhales as much tar and nicotine as a smoker does from four or five cigarettes.


How, then, can smokers unabashedly pollute the air? Why do non-smokers let them do it (particularly those 34 million in the U.S. that the American Medical Association estimates are sensitive to cigarette smoke)? Somehow, our sense of protocol and courtesy has been turned inside out. It is not considered rude to smoke in public; it is considered rude to ask someone not to smoke, or to answer "Yes" when asked, "Does anybody mind if I smoke?" Despite federal regulations requiring separate smoking and nonsmoking sections on trains and airplanes, it is considered rude to ask a passenger in a non-smoking section to put out his cigarette. Most conductors and stewardesses will not enforce smoking regulations unless asked; some will not enforce them even then. This reluctance to challenge smokers is surprising in light of what appears to be strong sentiment against public smoking. Fifty-eight per cent of those responding to a 1970 survey answered "Yes" to the question, "Is it annoying to be near a person who is smoking cigarettes?" (Among smokers, a surprisingly large 34 per cent answered "Yes.")

SMOKERS HAVE always assumed the right to smoke in public and most non-smokers have never questioned that assumption. No such right exists, just as there is no right to sneeze on other people, an action considered more obnoxious but which is actually no more harmful than blowing smoke on other people. Smokers often defend their right to smoke in public under the banner of freedom of choice. For example, when former HEW Secretary Elliot L. Richardson '41 prohibited smoking in all of the Department's auditoriums and conference rooms, an indignant employee wrote to him protesting that such a restriction "is tantamount to suggesting I not drive my car to work because 35,000 persons were killed in auto accidents last year. The choice to drive is mine...I enjoy smoking. I resent being denied that small pleasure. I take exception to the Secretary denying me the right to such a personal choice."

But the choice is not personal; it is public. The smoker has no right to determine the quality of air that the rest of those in a room will breathe. And there is no public good to be weighed against the damage smoking causes, as one can weigh the benefits of the automobile against traffic deaths. There is nothing good about smoking. It relieves tension, but it also causes it. It keeps some smokers from getting fat, but it robs them of good health in the process. If, after considering this, smokers do not want to quit, that is a matter of personal choice. The decision to smoke in public is not. This all seems very obvious, but smokers still falsely equate their right to smoke with the non-smokers's right to breathe clean air. They do not realize that when anyone smokes, everyone smokes.

Lois Pines may not pass her Bill of Rights for non-smokers this year, but other city and state governments will probably pass similar bills soon, which will put more pressure on Massachusetts. In New York City this Thursday, the Board of Health will vote on a plan to segregate smokers from non-smokers whenever more than 25 people gather in public. In an editorial last Saturday, The New York Times supported the proposal, saying it would "help liberate non-smokers from the tyranny of those who indiscriminately pollute the air of public places in disregard of the health and comfort of others."

Pines read the editorial and felt gratified to have some respectable support behind what some might think her crackpot crusade. "It became a viable idea when The New York Times endorsed it," she says with a laugh.

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