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OUR OPINION: Science on outdoor smokers: Leave 'em alone

The cause is probably lost. If the prospect of a free American sitting on a park bench and enjoying a cigarette already has the Grand Forks Park Board blowing its figurative police whistle and slapping on a preliminary ban, there's not much hope of the board members changing their minds.

After all, if there's anything more addictive than nicotine, it's power.

But how we wish the members would at least stop justifying their ban in the name of science, and start calling it what it is: paternalism.

Because the fact is, the science in this case confirms what people can see with their own eyes: our park-bench smoker, surrounded not by restaurant or stadium crowds but by grass, trees and sky, is harming no one but himself.

No, he's not damaging others in the outdoor park with his tiny waft of smoke. No, he's not convincing the children playing Frisbee to light up. (Since when have young people taken their major cues from strangers rather than parents, peers or celebrities?)

No, he's not harming the environment in any significant way, even if he grinds his inch-long cigarette butt on a post and flicks it into the grass.

And by claiming he's doing those things, then using that claim to justify a smoking ban, authorities hurt the cause of public health. They do so by abusing public health's greatest virtue: its credibility—Americans' trust that public-health officials base their regulatory actions on sound science.

Here are two sources that justify skepticism about the public-health benefits of outdoor smoking bans.

The first is a 2013 report in the journal Health Affairs. "Three justifications for these (outdoor smoking) restrictions have been invoked," the researchers from Columbia University's School of Public Health write. Those factors are "the risk of passive smoke to nonsmokers, the pollution caused by cigarette butts, and the long-term risks to children from seeing smoking in public.

"Our analysis of the evidence for these claims found it far from definitive and in some cases weak," the researchers conclude.

The second is the work of Simon Chapman—Australian public-health professor, former editor of the British Medical Journal's "Tobacco Control" specialist journal, winner of the American Cancer Society's Terry Award for leadership in tobacco control and outspoken critic of tobacco bans on beaches and in parks.

For example, here's Chapman in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, writing about the supposed "virtues of shielding children from the (mere) sight of smoking":

"This line of reasoning is pernicious and redolent of totalitarian regimes in their penchants for repressing various liberties, communication and cultural expression not sanctioned by the state. ... Coercing people to stop smoking in settings where it poses negligible risk to others is openly paternalistic. ... Paternalistic, for-your-own-good laws about seat belts and motorcycle helmets involve trivial restrictions on liberty. Telling smokers that they cannot smoke in public sight is a restriction of a different magnitude."

In Australia, Chapman notes, only 12.8 percent of the population now smokes, "and this has been achieved without the unethical coercion of smokers." Would that the Grand Forks Park Board's members likewise stand up for freedom, find less coercive ways to discourage smoking and refuse to cross Chapman's ethical line.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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