Smokers' Rights a Just and Stupid Cause

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Just as the Stonewall riots of 1969 are remembered as the start of the gay rights movement, so too will July 27, 2002 be remembered as the start of New York City's smokers' rights movement.

At least, that was the plan of the group NYC C.L.A.S.H. (NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment) as they organized a petition drive against proposed New York City laws that would banish smokers from restaurants and even bars a petition drive launched on the site of the pro-gay rights Stonewall riots.

Legally, C.L.A.S.H. may be right. Despite the fact that cigarette smoke annoys non-smokers, it would seem that property owners ought to get the final say about what activities occur on their property. If you don't want cigarette smoke in your face, no one is forcing you to enter an establishment that allows smoking. If enough people hate smoking as much as you do (and it appears that more and more people do), sooner or later a capitalist will see a great opportunity to open a restaurant or bar that caters to people who want a smoke-free environment.

In a free market, we don't need to have all restaurants smoke-free or all restaurants smoky. People can choose and should accept higher prices or extra travel time if their preferences turn out to be a rare niche taste that only a few establishments cater to. Similarly, if you want to go to a restaurant where there are no loud noises or a restaurant where no one wears hats, you should be willing to seek out and pay for that specialty rather than passing a law that forces everyone to be quiet or hatless.

So a legal and philosophical case can be made for C.L.A.S.H.'s cause.

From a public health perspective, though, C.L.A.S.H.'s valorization of smoking is a tragedy, and this is a point that libertarian defenders of smoking often neglect to make.

We may have the legal right to damage ourselves in all sorts of ways falling down while drunk, sitting on the sofa and never exercising, keeping electrical appliances next to the bathtub but it would be a mistake to depict these behaviors as intelligent or admirable. Smoking, regardless of whether it is the right of a free people, kills about one third of those who do it, some 400,000 Americans each year and, by some estimates, 4 million people around the world.

Yet C.L.A.S.H.'s website, in its tribute to rescue workers from the World Trade Center attack, attempts to link life-saving heroism and the deadly habit of smoking, asking: "Who dares to fault any of them for wanting a cigarette now?" It appears that an unintended consequence of the recent spate of anti-smoking laws has been to make cigarettes a symbol of rugged individualism, like wearing a cowboy hat. Unlike a cowboy hat, though, cigarettes may kill you in an especially nasty and painful way if you contract lung cancer and they will certainly impair your health to some degree (despite the many smokers who manage to make it to an advanced age).

There is an obvious temptation for libertarians, C.L.A.S.H., or other defenders of smokers' rights to make smoking seem individualistic, manly, and daring one more wild, big-spirited, all-American thing that the nannies and bureaucrats are trying to clamp down on. But propaganda aside, smoking is a very bad idea, quite frequently fatal, and, perhaps most troubling of all, a great temptation for teens, who are notoriously bad calculators of long-term risks.

It's not much fun to defend an activity by saying, "This is a stupid and dangerous thing to do, but technically it should be permitted." One would like to think one is defending friends' right to be free spirits rather than their right to commit suicide. But an honest appraisal of the right to smoke requires admitting this is the right to do something that one would be far wiser not to do.

Defenders of smoking owe it to their fellow citizens to be as vocal in spreading that health warning as they are in promoting their anti-regulatory petitions.

Read the e-monograph Libertarians, Smoking, and Insanity.


August 9, 2002


I read with wry amusement your rant about the smokers' rights organization, C.L.A.S.H.

If smoking is so darn "hazardous," then why don't smokers drop like flies after just a few, short years of engaging in the habit? Fact is, they don't. In fact, the enormous majority of smokers live well past their eighties and nineties...and die from natural causes.

If secondhand smoke is so darn "harmful," then why aren't passersby dropping dead by the millions? Fact is, no one has ever been harmed by it. There is no unbiased, documented proof of such an event.

Regardless of your opposing opinion, thank you for highlighting and publicizing the C.L.A.S.H. website. I've just visited the site and have signed up for membership. When my two grown sons visit the site (which they've promised to do), then I'm sure they'll be added to the membership rolls, too. Tomorrow, I'll start calling my friends and other relatives (super-large Catholic family, don't you know).

Whoever the founder is of this site, I applaud him/her for doing such a great job in highlighting all the taxes (without representation) forced upon smokers and the discrimination in housing, employment, child custody cases, etc.

Your sites are the twenty-first century versions of an "anti-smokers' water cooler" and a "smokers and nonsmokers-who-couldn't-care-less water cooler."


Barbara Aucoin
Lafayette, LA

August 9, 2002

Todd Seavey's article on Smokers' Rights made note of organizations like NYC C.L.A.S.H. that seek to end unfair taxation and harassment of smokers but ended by saying, "Defenders of smoking owe it to their fellow citizens to be as vocal in spreading that health warning as they are in promoting their anti-regulatory petitions."

If Mr. Seavey checked the American Medical Association Report on Tobacco Control of 2001 he would find that those seeking higher taxes and bans on smoking are currently getting over $880 million dollars a year for their efforts, just from state/MSA funding alone. According to figures released by Americans for Tax Reform, well over $30 of the cost of a $40 carton of cigarettes now goes to government through various taxes/fees.

Groups like C.L.A.S.H. are getting zero funding for their efforts (none of the currently active smokers' rights groups in America are getting a dime from Big Tobacco nowadays; most of them oppose the sweet deal made between the State Attorneys General and Big Tobacco to steal a "tax" out of smokers' pockets through the Master Settlement Agreement.) Perhaps if the funding were split a bit more evenly we would see smokers' rights organizations spend some of the money on health advice. Would Mr. Seavey and ACSH be prepared to advocate this?


Michael McFadden
Philadelphia, PA
PASAN: Pennsylvania Smokers Action Network

August 9, 2002

Your column was very thought-provoking. You commented that: "It's not much fun to defend an activity by saying, 'This is a stupid and dangerous thing to do, but technically it should be permitted.' One would like to think one is defending friends' right to be free spirits rather than their right to commit suicide."

That was a bit ironic given longtime New Jersey anti-smoking advocate John Slade, M.D., having committed suicide.


August 10, 2002

Great analysis and perspective on the right to commit suicide by smoking. The absurd portrayal of smokers as in-your-face freedom fighters belies the reality that smokers forfeit freedom as long as they allow nicotine addiction to dictate where they can work and play. The idiocy of defending drug addiction, illness, and death by nicotine includes a rather selective defense of freedom, since this brainless advocacy never addresses the rights of anyone else [i.e., non-smokers], except to say, "Stay home if you don't like it." There is no longer any doubt that secondhand smoke also sickens and kills, and exposure to it should never be anyone's condition of employment.

The right to commit suicide is not the same as the right to commit murder. And that is why smoke-free workplaces are emerging as the new norm.

Ginny Lovell
Vancouver, Canada

August 19, 2002

Mr. Seavey's article of August 9th is generally on-target. However, the issue here is not whether those "free-spirited" smokers have the right to kill themselves it's whether they have the right to kill us.

As an NYC bartender and club promoter, not to mention club-goer, it is not merely "annoying" to have to deal with other people's smoke. It is something that over time will definitely take a serious toll on my health. I cannot count the times I've had to leave bars due to burning eyes and throat from other people's smoke. Every night, I need to wash the stink out of my hair. My clothes smell like cigarettes. And yet, all this is caused by fewer than 20% of the clientele of any drinking establishment.

I don't particularly care whether anyone else wants to partake in any sort of unhealthy activity. That's their business. But I shouldn't have to partake of your unhealthy activity.

Hardly anyone smokes, and yet this inconsiderate minority insists on inflicting their nasty habit upon all of us. Bars are for drinking, dancing, and music not for smoking.


September 19, 2002

Mr. Seavey makes accusations without understanding the basis of that which he points a disagreeable finger at. That finger should be pointed at the anti-smokers, namely Stanton Glantz (the original founder of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights), who has made the statement "heroes don't smoke" in order to promote the idea that smokers are low-class, uneducated, and bad role models.

By asking "Who dares to fault any of them for wanting a cigarette now?" in association with the rescue workers at the World Trade Center, our intent was not to associate smoking with ruggedness. It was to dispute the hate-filled propaganda of the anti-smokers. Heroes do smoke (there were plenty of images in the first day of the attack of bloodied firefighters having a cigarette), and the fact that they indulge in a perfectly legal behavior doesn't detract from that one iota.

Furthermore, our mission statement includes the opinion that smoking carries a risk something else Mr. Seavey chose not to look for before claiming otherwise.

We only promote facts, and freedom to choose without overbearing paternalism by outside forces. It's the anti-smokers who promote misperceptions and distortions.

Audrey Silk
NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (NYC C.L.A.S.H.)