Public Health and Personal Freedom: A Delicate Balance

There are some situations in democratic societies wherein the “public interest” requires restrictions on individual freedoms. We have laws designed to protect people thought to be a danger to themselves, laws that quarantine people thought to a danger to others owing to evidence that they are harboring transmittable toxins and so on. Not everyone is pleased with such restrictions intended to safeguard the general good, to protect “The Commons,” but that’s in part because some people are either daft, ignorant or a combination of the two states.

One instance of a sensible constraint on individual liberty involves clean air. There are no health or other social benefits from pollutants introduced into public breathing places indoors and out by smokers. There are substantial dangers - given enough bad chemicals, the well being of the innocent will be at risk. Nobody should be menaced by the reckless actions of others. I have no problem with reckless behaviors by those who want to engage in them, provided that bystanders are not harmed. It is important to curtail behaviors that foul the lands, airs or waters.

If you are at all like me, you want to experience to the extent possible a fun life in a meaningless world. You also want to adopt skepticism as the default position concerning any attempts by authorities to reform anyone on any health or other issue - smoking included. But, skepticism and an insistence on being persuaded that restrictions are sensible are not the same as automatic opposition. It all depends. It depends on whether someone else’s gross and disgusting habits actually hazard your personal or the public’s interest.

So, let’s look at something really gross and disgusting. No, not Republican politics or even religion - I’m referring to smoking. (I’ll get back to religion soon enough. By the way, Ambrose Bierce defined religion as “a daughter of Hope and Fear who explained to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” Fair enough.)

Strictly speaking, religion throughout history (to the extent we can accurately understand it) seems to involve believing in and worshiping one out of tens of thousands of superhuman control freaks, all of whom are all-knowing and all-seeing, all-perfect and basically all-everything and recognizing that if you believe in or worship the wrong superhuman control freak, you’ll burn in hell forever - after you have suffered on earth before dying and being reborn in hell.

And, apropos of hellfire, back to smoking. 


Every year there are new and more creative initiatives by public authorities to protect non-smokers and persuade nicotine addicts to reform their ways. As a life-long non-smoker and enthusiast for REAL wellness lifestyles that enhance every prospect for reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty, smoking would be irrational - insane and a death blow to my credibility. I have no more use for tobacco than for being waterboarded. I want to be protected from second-hand smoke. I am not pleased to suppor the costs of medical or other care for those who ruin their health with self-destructive behaviors. But, things are complicated. Public policies must be based on sober assessments backed by solid evidence. Such evidence often reveals variables that account for many if not most of the suicidal habit-patterns I find loathsome. For instance, those who smoke may be highly unintelligent, depraved and clinically insane or otherwise saddled with mutant genetics and/or victims of deplorable conditioning by parents and/or dysfunctional cultures.

So, I favor a bit of mercy, even for those who do not think, act or live in ways that are viewed as responsible or sensible.

I am, as you can tell, a moderately compassionate liberal. Basically, if adults can find a bit of pleasure in their lives without doing others harm to others, I’m not in favor of government or other restrictions. Anyone should be free to leap off any bridge, providing measures are taken to prevent inconvenience or worse to strollers and other passersby underneath. Government or other programs aimed at education and persuasion are fine, even dandy and have a place in free countries. Bans, on the other hand? Not so good.

To protect the health of all, the right of smokers to use tobacco products is limited to certain private spaces. We now have more laws than ever that prohibit smoking in buildings, campuses, public transportation and elsewhere. Most people, including the most fervent supporters of individual freedoms, consent to and support such restrictions.

Ban Smoking?

But, what about banning smoking? If smoking is harmful, why allow it at all? Smoking is clearly addictive. Smokers are addicts. They need help. Why not just remove this product from the free market and offer counseling and other services to addicts undergoing the pains of withdrawal?

Some smokers fear society is moving in that direction. Let’s hope it does not come to that. People have a right to self-destruct, provided they don’t destruct others in doing so. We already have drug wars, which are an abomination against liberties and good sense. I note that restrictions on smoking and campaigns to shame, intimidate and frighten smokers are becoming more aggressive. No problems with that, but all stop short of prohibition. Smokers must remain free to kill themselves if they so choose, while taking care to do no harm to others. Most people, especially non-smokers, are fine with this distinction and the policies that follow. Draconian public health messages are more insulting to tobacco customers than ever.

In America, whenever there is a conflict between government regulation that promotes health and the tobacco industry’s freedom to make money, the latter usually wins out. Not necessarily in Australia.

Australia’s Warning Labels

Anti-smoking zealots were generally delighted by recent initiatives downunder. The $10 billion dollar-a -year tobacco industry is under siege. Billboards and other displays depict smoking as stupid, dangerous, expensive and gross, all of which it is. No ads are permitted that feature young, beautiful and orgasmically joyful smoker

s in the throes of epileptic paroxysms of exuberance sucking on toxic gasses. No, all these once-omnipresent ad campaigns advanced by tobacco companies have been replaced by public health ads with graphics of withered smokers enduring the dreadful consequences of their wanton ways. Smokers remain free to buy and puff away, but new restrictions and taxes make doing so more difficult and expensive. Now smoking packages carry unprecedented warnings and predictions about the consequences of utilizing what is contained therein. Credit goes to Nicola Roxon, the Attorney General and a former Health Minister who got all fired up about smoking due to her father’s death from lung cancer.   

Think about the traditional glitzy appearance of a pack of cigarettes. Now consider what a pack looks like in Australia under the new rules. For starters, the pictures of diseased body parts and no-nonsense warnings (“This product is a hazard to your health and will, in time, kill you”) cover 75 percent of the front side of the pack. Have you seen a photo of a gangrenous foot lately? How about a tongue rotted by cancer? A toilet stained with bloody urine? Check out the new look of cigarette packs in Australia and you’ll see all this and more. I love it. The other side of the pack offers more of the same. The difference is this opposite side is 90 percent devoted to dire warnings and horrific images.

Yet, besides Australia, 47 countries have strengthened anti-smoking messages. The most extensive the U.K., New Zealand, Turkey, plus the EU and the World Health Organization. (Source: David Fickling, “Australia's Gross-Out Cigarette Warnings,” Business Week, October 4, 2012.)

Will there be a further domino effect? Let’s hope so - and let’s hope the grim depictions of the effects of smoking get really, really grim. In the years to come, fans of the horror genre might not have to pay for their emotional fright highs - public health warnings about tobacco smoke might satisfy dedicated horror movie junkies with a satisfying fix.

However, it will be a while before America goes as far or farther than Australia.

What Lies Ahead?

Will we see similar warnings for other dumb and dangerous products, such as products on offer from the meat, dairy, fish and other industries of foods not enjoyed by slim vegans like me?

Even I am not ready for that.