Should damaging your own health be against the law? Apparently so, if you ask the BMA

I don’t smoke. As it happens, I don’t think you should, either, if you do. Watching those huddled groups of furtive smokers at the back of my office, I have to confess that my unguarded, but instinctive, response is one of contempt. “Get a grip of your life!” I want to shout. “How can you allow yourself to be obliged by your frankly disgusting habit to shiver in the icy blast ripping through this grim bus-shelter-like affair? Have you no pride?” I don’t, of course, partly because I’m far too polite, and partly because I recognise that it’s none of my damned business.

But I confess to these unworthy emotions in order to make it crystal clear that I hold no brief for smoking. I do, from time to time, enjoy a nice cigar on a sunny afternoon in my back garden, but as for a 20-a-day fag habit, I really can’t be sympathetic. So I cannot be accused of special pleading. But whereas I do recognise that it’s none of my damned business if some of my comrades have decided to behave with a cheery and ill-advised disregard for their personal health, the British Medical Association signally fails to do the same.

It wishes to ban, under pain of breaking the law, anyone from smoking in their own car. This is because, they claim, that smoking in a car creates a 23-fold increase in the noxiousness of the air within it compared with that in a smoky bar. At the very least they must be judging that from memory since smoky bars are already banned, but we’ll let that pass. How reassuringly precise seems that 23 times multiplier. It must be scientific. Well, that’s the kind of “scientific” claim that lets them down, the public down, and indeed everybody down. The best that can be said is that smoking in a confined space increases the concentration of toxins in the air. I think I could probably have worked that out for myself since it is blindingly obvious.

But the argument with the BMA is not at root an argument about the science that they quote. Even if they were not grossly simplifying for effect, and their faux-precision were correct, they would still be wrong to call for this ban. If I eat a disgusting McDonald’s quadruple hamburger with added plastic cheese in my car, I am not only offending against taste and decency, but I am also endangering my health. Am I to be banned from doing so? If I buy a bag of barley sugars, and consume them in my car, am I to be hauled before the beak because of the damage I’ve done to my dental health?

There is an infinity of choice before me if I want to cause myself damage. The fact that I might decide to cause that damage to myself in my car hardly seems a relevant consideration. The BMA need to stop lecturing us on how to behave. They are right to point out, in as much graphic detail as they wish, the consequences of this, that, or the other dangerous personal habit. And then they need to shut up. I’m an adult, and I’m perfectly capable of making such decisions for myself.

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6 thoughts on “Should damaging your own health be against the law? Apparently so, if you ask the BMA

  1. I think you you are over simplying things here. The BMA’s call for a total ban of smoking in cars comes in the context of a debate in Parliament on protecting children (and other vulnerable passengers) from secondhand smoke. Nothing to do with saving people from themselves.

    I suggest you read the report of the Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, which has just been published, that should give you some background on the debate, the scientific position and the possible solution being examined.

    You can access the report here: http://ash.org.uk/current-policy-issues/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-smoking-and-health (it’s in the right hand side box).

    • Thanks for putting the alternative view. But my point remains: in attempting to protect others from second-hand smoke, the BMA is recommending protecting smokers from themselves on the supposedly pragmatic grounds that it’s too difficult for law enforcement officers to distinguish between offenders and non-offenders, so the simple answer is to make every smoker an offender.

      That is fundamentally illiberal and wrong. Difficulty in enforcement cannot be an excuse simply to extend the scope of what is to be deemed unlawful. And the more cynical amongst us might wonder whether the interests of second-hand smokers are not being used as an, ahem, smokescreen for the BMA’s general campaign against smoking full stop.

      • What would you suggest instead?

        You talk about civil liberties but you (and with you, many smokers moaning against smoking bans) seem to forget that of non-smokers.

        A recurrent definition of freedom (in various declarations of human rights along the years) is that my freedom stops where yours start. To me this clearly means that smokers should not smoke in the presence of non-smokers. if you look at the report you will see that smokers are less likely to be respectful of other’s liberty not to smoke (or inhale secondhand smoke).

        • But Nicholas, the whole point here is that the BMA is not stopping at the prevention of harm to others: it’s proposing to make it illegal for lone car occupants to smoke in their cars.

          I for one have not objected to the ban in public places generally, even though I personally would support smoking bars in which those who enter are doing so on the basis that smoking will take place: staff in such places would obviously have to be smokers too. I don’t agree that I’ve “forgotten [the liberties] of non-smokers”. But their right not to inhale others’ smoke (which I entirely respect) should not be used as a means to restrict the liberties of others when the exercising of those liberties is not impinging on non-smokers. Like in one’s own car, for example!

          • But then there is a question of implementing a partial ban (again the report explains the issues there), the so-called thirdhand smoke (ie the residue that remains after smoking – though there is little scientific proof around this), and the distraction created by the fact of smoking (which is already mentioned in the highway code).

            Arguments seem to stack up in favour of a ban while there isn’t much against one.

            • I suspect we’re not going to reach agreement on this one! The argument about distraction is irrelevant for the very reason that it is already covered as you yourself concede. Eating a Mars Bar at the wheel can equally (and rightly) land you up in court.

              It seems that the arguments against the ban are much stronger. (Remember that we’re not talking here about a ban on smoking if non-smoking passengers are present: that would be an easier case to argue.) The ban proposed isn’t about protecting non-smokers – it includes lone smokers. The ban isn’t about distraction – already covered. It’s not about protecting the wider public – a car is a private space. And when you start talking about “third-hand smoke”, I know you’re scrabbling about for justifications that don’t exist!

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