A report released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Thursday requested that Congress grant the Food and Drug Administration the power to strictly regulate tobacco products. According to USA Today, the advisory panel wants the agency to control “ingredients, labeling and marketing” and pile on a variety of sticks (read: forcible disincentives) to retailers and users of cigarettes via a cocktail of sales licensing, taxation and property right infringement. Not only would an individual pack of smokes cost up to $2 in additional taxes, property owners would no longer have the right to permit smoking in any non-residential property as smoking would be banned indoors.
The mentality supporting such harsh action must be that the supposed threat to public health posed by smoking is more important than individual rights. It’s an ends-justify-the-means approach served up with a big helping of sketchy ends. The ends are ‘sketchy’ because nobody is questioning the Institute of Medicine’s notion of public health, nor are they questioning whether such a notion can exist within a society that respects an individual’s ability to make choices provided he or she doesn’t injure non-consenting others.
Cigarette smoking is described by the IOM as a “significant public health problem.” Such a statement denotes widespread health havoc and, more importantly, suggests that such havoc is being wreaked unwittingly upon a community.
But the facts suggest quite the opposite. The effects of smoking – and the secondhand smoke that comes from associating with smokers while they smoke – is the result of voluntary choices. Nobody is forcing the smoker to light up, nor is anybody forcing the smokers’ friends or family members to enter a smoke-filled environment. To a non-smoker who works in a smoky environment, monetary need might serve as a strong deterrent for quitting, but the option still exists. So if both smokers and those who voluntarily inhale secondhand smoke are well aware of the risks but do not alter their behavior, the health risks of smoking seem to be individual health problems, not public ones.
Even if the IOM views the promotion of public health as having a broader aim than mere contagion control, its advocacy of greater controls on smoking is unjustified. A popular argument in this vein is that the government should foster public health and wellness – even at the expense of individual rights – because high numbers of unhealthy people put a strain on health care resources.
If the American government acted as a universal provider of health care, this line of reasoning wouldn’t be too off-base. Fortunately, however, this isn’t the case. Premium-paying smokers have every right to keep on puffing as long as their insurance companies have been appropriately informed of their high-risk activity. Smoking and health costs are therefore a contractual issue – notably one that does not concern Uncle Sam.
In the case of Medicare and Medicaid, the “strain on resources” argument doesn’t hold up either, because it basically takes an approach that the government should limit smoking for everybody so that it may better economically maintain two inherently socialist systems. It smells like a “two wrongs make a right” approach because it is. Instead of getting rid of two expensive, inefficient systems, the proposal to fix this problem is actually to make daily life more miserable for about one-fifth of the United States’ adult population.
Yes, smoking does pose legitimate health risks. And yes, smoking poses these risks not just to the smoker but also to those around him. Yet the presence of these risks does not justify the removal of personal decision-making.
When defining public health on its Web site, the USF College of Public Health states that professionals in the field “are part of an ongoing system that protects people from diseases and encourages them to change harmful behaviors.” This is a laudable goal, but one that is corrupt and indefensible when freedom of choice comes to be treated as a harmful behavior as well.
Victoria Bekiempis is a junior majoring in history and French.