Thou shalt not kill

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 2004, 12:00am

With a majority of legislators and the government in rare agreement on one issue of cardinal importance to Hong Kong - the banning of smoking in offices and restaurants - we now have another unusual phenomenon. People apparently unconnected to the tobacco industry are opposing the ban and framing their arguments in terms of rights and liberties.

They claim that the state should not intervene in a private activity and deprive individuals of a basic right - to smoke, and possibly kill oneself. Businesses should also be allowed to cater to the needs of their customers.

It is odd to see such arguments being made. Of course, from the human rights standpoint, it may well be argued that an individual has the right to knowingly become addicted to nicotine or any other drug, to endanger one's own health or, indeed, to take one's own life.

However, such rights - if they are rights - should only be exercised if they do not impair the basic rights of others to breathe clean air and not be exposed to life-threatening cigarette smoke. As the saying goes: 'Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.'

Legislation is essential. It is ineffective to leave it up to the judgment of individuals. I well remember going to a small restaurant in London where someone wishing to smoke a cigar asked if the other patrons objected. It was evident that some people were taken aback by this question, but then nobody wanted to make a scene, and so the man proceeded to light up.

Of course, smokers should be allowed to enjoy a cigarette in the privacy of their own homes. But if it is in a public place, particularly an enclosed public place, then that pleasure should only be enjoyed if they can manage to inhale the smoke - but not exhale it. Those subjected to second-hand smoke, after all, experience disease and death at first hand.

Objections to smoking are sometimes presented as based on trivial grounds, such as annoyance over the smell of tobacco in hair and clothes. Such objections, in fact, are not trivial. But more to the point, one cannot dry clean or shampoo one's lungs.

As for employees working in a smoky environment, the argument is that they choose to accept such work. At a time when unemployment is still extremely high, it is naive to argue that a worker always has a choice whether to accept a particular job or not - regardless of whether it poses a hazard to his health.

Opponents to a ban on smoking in restaurants have likened it to a ban on alcohol or even meat, arguing that the consumption of alcohol and meat also has harmful effects. That may well be true, but in the case of meat and alcohol, the effect is only on the individual consumer and not his dinner companion, or the person sitting at the next table. Smoking is objectionable because the smoke invariably makes its way into the lungs of others who do not wish to partake of the smoke.

It is even argued that cars, too, pollute the environment, and that a ban on smoking should logically mean a ban on motor vehicles, as well. But that is simply arguing that if the state cannot protect its citizens from one threat, then it should not protect its citizens from any threat. Besides, action is being taken to switch to non-polluting fuels, although more certainly needs to be done.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator