How far should the government go to protect us from ourselves?
It’s a question that comes up with all kinds of risky behavior, from not wearing seat belts and motorcycle helmets to consuming too many fatty foods and sugary drinks.
All of those behaviors have generated a variety of government warnings and even penalties for noncompliance, depending on the jurisdiction. But they are essentially “victimless” in the sense that only the perpetrators suffer actual harm. Financially, everyone might be paying some of the health bills through “community rated” insurance under Obamacare. But that is still an indirect impact.
Other risks like driving while texting and smoking in public have secondary impacts that require some accountability. Distracted drivers can be deadly ones, and it’s why we have supported both the city of Flagstaff and Coconino County in banning texting behind the wheel. The Legislature has yet to do anything about drivers and cellphones except for teens on learners’ permits, so Arizona residents are left with a patchwork of laws – not ideal, but a start.
As for smoking, if all that smokers did was inhale, there might not be much to debate -- except who should pay the bills for lung cancer treatment. But when they exhale, the secondhand smoke can be at least an irritant to others and, at worst, a deadly carcinogen when exposed over time. (Restaurant wait staff have been shown to be particularly vulnerable.) So although Flagstaff was among the first cities in Arizona to ban smoking in indoor spaces open to the public, it wasn’t long before others caught on.
Now the smoking issue has moved outdoors, especially in city parks, which can have some pretty confined spaces beneath ramadas and in the bleachers at a ballfield. The discarded butts can also pose a hazard to pets, and children, the biggest users of parks, are also the most sensitive to smoke.
The Flagstaff City Council heard all those arguments and more from local high school students and voted to ban smoking in parks, effective in early July. By coincidence, the fire season has prompted a ban on smoking in four parks anyway -- Thorpe , McMillan, McPherson and Buffalo – as well as along the FUTS, atop Observatory Mesa and in Picture Canyon. The reason is fire safety, but next year at this time the city won’t have to issue a special parks smoking ban – there will be one in place year-round.
Ideally, we’d like to see heavy smokers find a way to break the habit without resorting to bans. Even smoking in the privacy of one’s home can be dangerous if children are present, and there’s the fire angle, too. Upping the tax on cigarettes as well as health insurance premiums can help smokers see how costly their habit has become, and covering some smoking cessation programs through insurance makes financial as well as health sense.
But for now, the more we can keep cigarettes and smoking away from children, the better their chances will be for a healthy future. Banning smoking in otherwise kid-friendly parks makes sense – if that’s giving in to the Nanny State, we plead guilty.