This is quite possibly the most important pollution & public health story in Washington so far this year: as the Seattle P-I reports today, Pierce County’s smoking ban has been struck down by the Washington State supreme court.
Let’s be clear about a few things. Smoking kills. Tobacco is the top cause of preventable death in the U.S. And second-hand smoke kills too. So ensuring that public spaces are smoke-free is a good way to improve public health.
Nonetheless, smoking bans are almost always controversial, since they pit one core value—protecting human health—against another—preserving personal liberty. Nobody can *make* me enter a public space that’s filled with smoke, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to take that risk if I want to?
For me, that kind of argument falls down in a couple of ways. First, kids are often in public places, and they don’t have a much of a say in where they go—so public smoking bans help protect those among us who don’t necessarily have a choice about where they go.
Second, smoking is addictive—more addictive even than heroin. That means that, for people who are hooked, their ability to "choose" whether to smoke is severely impaired. Having a hard time quitting is not just a matter of "willpower" or "character," but of brain chemistry; addictive behavior is not a subset of choice, but the opposite of choice. Which is one reason why most people who desperately want to quit smoking have to try many times before they’re successful.
Public health is about creating the kinds of environments in which the easy choices are also the healthy ones. I’m all for personal choice—and I’d like to the ability to choose to enter a public space without worrying about my health, or my kids’.