Smoking ban?… uh, no.

Mr. Ramadoss has spoken, he is stepping up his fight against tobacco smoking. From October 2nd, a blanket ban on indoor smoking goes into effect. While I understand that the intention is to reduce the prevalence of smoking, a major health concern in India, and protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke, I do not understand how this ban is going to help.

No, I am not going to make the same pedestrian arguments against such a ban that you have read/heard all over the place; ranging from ‘if they want to keep people from smoking, then they should ban cigarettes’, to ‘my nicotine habit is my business’. In fact, I think those arguments do not hold water, and I will demonstrate why.

Ban cigarettes… uh, no.

Consider the ‘ban the cigarettes instead’ argument. There have been widespread calls for banning alcohol since it is a social evil, and a similar argument is made for cigarettes as well. Cigarette cause severe health problems. Unhealthy youth put a strain on the society’s (rickety) health care system, and their unproductivity make them a liability to the rest of the society. Hence they should be banned. Well, actually no. because banning them will only drive them underground, and the society (and the government) will lose all regulatory control over them. Consequence is that now there is no way to regulate the processing of tobacco (since they are going to be processing it in some dingy backyard, there is a good chance they may be contaminated with some lethal chemical, like illegal arrack sometimes is); there is no way to control the sale to tobacco (one the most addictive substances known to man) to minors; there is no way to control the supply of tobacco, and hence no way to control people’s addiction to it.

It’s a victimless crime… uh, no.

Another argument is ‘it’s my body, and I can do what I want with it’. Well, while that argument may apply to drug abuse, it does not apply to smoking. Why? Because there is such a thing called second-hand smoke. Even if you are a smoker in a den of smokers, you have no right to damage the health of another smoker through your second-hand smoke. Every smoker’s lung cancer is her/her own business, and no one else has the right to expedite that.

Smoking increases health care costs… uh, no.

Third argument is ‘smoking increases the health cost, and puts strain on the health care system’.  If you look at this study in the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s conclusion is:

Conclusions If people stopped smoking, there would be a savings in health care costs, but only in the short term. Eventually, smoking cessation would lead to increased health care costs.

So there you have it! The whole lower health care costs argument is dubious as well. Then what does this mean? It simply means that banning cigarettes is not the smartest idea.

Now coming to the actual smoking ban going into effect from October 2nd: it wont help either. Why? Because of many reasons:

  1. Air Quality: If people are forced to smoke outside, it will affect the air quality around all work places. So not only are the smokers at risk, so are all employees, visitors, and bystanders.
  2. Ascetics: Smoking outside means more cigarette butts outside, which affects the ascetics of the common places like roads (assuming they were clean to begin with) and sidewalks (assuming they exist). Now you have the increased costs to keeping them clean, and not to mention the stink of burnt cigarette butts.
  3. Accountability and responsibility: Requiring the employers to provide facilities for smoking, and have mechanism to ensure that they do NOT affect the air quality (with special filters on ventilators to absorb cigarette smoke), will induce a sense of responsibility and accountability to the employers, thus incentivize them to encourage non-smoking. On the other hand, with the new smoking ban, employers no longer have to bear the burden of having smokers in their staff, all the burden now shifts to the state because all the employer has to do is say smoking is banned indoors, but you can go outside to smoke. If you want to keep people from smoking you need to include as many stakeholders as possible, and this ban just lost the employers as stakeholders!
  4. Accessibility: One way to disincentivize smokers is make cigarettes less accessible (by controlling the price and distribution). With this ban, I can see more office buildings sporting cigarette hawkers outside offering cigarettes to smokers, who have little choice but to come out to smoke. Now this only serve to enable the smokers some more, rather than curb the practice.

Besides, if you want to control the amount of smoking people do, the only way you can do it is to control the supply and distribution of cigarettes and invest more on education, prevention, and rehabilitation program. Introducing a ban on indoor smoking simply wont do any of that, and fails to address the root cause of the issue to begin with.

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