Smoking Philosophy

What sort of philosophy do we want to adopt to serve as a guide to our lawmaking decisions? Here I discuss my opinions and how it relates to smoking. Feel free to make valid arguments against my opinions. Arguments like “your examples are stupid” or “you are an idiot” or “you’re out of touch with reality” aren’t valid. Take the time to think generally about the points and ideas I am trying to convey.

Minimizing Risk

Every activity involves risk. Living life involves weighing up risk vs reward. In fact every activity you do, every decision you make, you’ve either consciously or subconsciously made a risk assessment and decided for yourself whether it’s worth taking the risk or not. All activities have associated risk that could manifest in an undesirable outcome. All activities that you may undertake have a perceived benefit. This is inherent in living life. You cannot eliminate risk, and you cannot do anything that makes you happy without taking risks. The only way to eliminate risk is to cease living.

What about minimizing risk? Think about what that means. Minimizing risk would mean living in an incubator, a cocoon like those you see in The Matrix, being fed an intravenous solution with the perfect balance of nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. This would maximize your lifespan and minimize your risks. For any other arrangement, then you’re making a decision that could potentially sacrifice your life, in your pursuit of happiness. So minimizing risk is not a valid philosophy in my opinion.

I saw Nicola Roxon, ex attorney general of Australia, on Australian Story on ABCTV. Her father died from smoking related illness. She played a key role in the changes to smoking laws in Australia. In the episode, I saw her put mayonnaise on the salad she was preparing. Is this a ridiculous example? Think generally about the idea I am conveying. Mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and egg yolks, combined to give a fat and cholesterol laden condiment, which Nicola Roxon was serving to her children. I am sure mayonnaise has contributed to fatalities related to high fat intake. It’s got fat and cholesterol so inherently it must contribute. There are risks involved with consuming mayonnaise. Her partner was enjoying a glass of what looked like champagne, and they discussed drinking beer in a way that suggested they have drunk beer before. I don’t need to tell you about the risks associated with drinking alcohol. What gives Nicola the right to take these risks because she enjoys taking them, yet enforce onto us her position that smoking isn’t worth the risk? What sort of principles or ideologies could you apply in a consistent fashion that would result in this situation, apart from pure hypocrisy?

It’s clear that minimizing risk is not what we as a society are trying to achieve. What are we doing? We are deciding for ourselves what risks we want to take. We want to avoid unnecessarily escalating risk, especially if it can be easily mitigated, and still participate in activities that we enjoy.

For example, when deciding whether you should cross the road, if you wanted to truly minimize the risk then you would not cross. If you do decide to cross, then an easy way to mitigate the risk is to look both ways and wait for a break in traffic before crossing. It doesn’t cost you much and it does a pretty good job of reducing risk. But it doesn’t minimize the risk. Instead of looking both ways, you could build a bridge. You may not have the time or money to build a bridge. Building a bridge would allow you to cross the road whilst having a very small residual risk. You could say, if you HAVE to cross the road, then building the bridge minimizes the risk. But do we build a bridge every time we cross the road? No, which automatically invalidates the argument of minimizing risks. We need to decide what risks we want to take, and what actions we want to take to control those risks.

Crossing the road is an analogy for living your life. It’s a balance between doing what you want to do, taking reasonable actions to reduce the risk, and going for it.

Smoking is bad for you

I feel sympathy for anyone who’s been adversely affected by smoking, including Nicola Roxon. Whether someone’s had friends or family become sick or die from smoking or if they themselves are sick from smoking. I also feel sympathy for people who have had been affected by road accident injuries or fatalities, heart attacks, shark attacks, fatalities from interactions between vehicles and cyclists and injuries or death related to pursing a passion such as an extreme sport. Does that mean we outlaw these activities, because of the pain and suffering they have caused?

I wish the world could be one without risks. A world where there would be no suffering related to taking risks.  Unfortunately that’s not the case, and risk taking is inherent to living life.

What does “bad for you” mean? A risk to your health and wellbeing? In that case any activity is bad for you. It’s called living, and living involves risks. Living is bad for you, and the only way to completely avoid things that are bad for you is to stop living.

Why is smoking special? From a philosophical point of view, I don’t think it is. Seems to me like it’s being unfairly targeted. Arbitrarily targeted. Like a bandwagon, a fashionable fad that politicians can jump on to give them something to do, make a name for themselves, and divert attention from other more pressing issues. To me, there is no difference between swimming in the ocean and smoking. Both are typical risks involved in living life. A risk that you take because of the pleasure you receive from it. What’s the difference? Swimming is good for you, as long as you don’t get eaten by a shark? Similarly, smoking is good for you, as long as you don’t die from smoking. By “good for you”, I mean enhances your quality of life, which is completely subjective.

So we can rule out a philosophy in which activities that are bad for you are outlawed. Everything is bad for you. Living life is bad for you.

Smoking is always bad for you no matter what

Is the way that risks and probabilities apply to your health any different for smoking than it is for any other activity? Some people may argue that having one cigarette is doing you damage, whereas driving a car once is not doing you damage, as long as you’re not involved in an accident. Actually both examples are exactly the same. With hindsight, you can say whether smoking was unhealthy or whether driving a car was unhealthy. After someone has finished driving a car, if they haven’t died from a vehicle accident, then we can say that driving the car did not cause them to die. Similarly, if someone smokes cigarettes for their whole life, then dies of something else, we can say that smoking did not cause them to die. Smoking contributed exactly zero to their death.

The risks work in exactly the same way. Both activities manifest as a risk and probability distribution in exactly the same manner. Smoking introduces the chance of smoking related illness, and driving a car introduces the chance of a driving related accident. Smoking doesn’t guarantee that the risk will result in an undesirable outcome. It is exactly the same as any other risk / return decision that you may face in your life.

Smoking is Addictive

Addiction is using something despite it’s negative effects. So anything can be addictive and any philosophy that targets smoking because it’s addictive must also target everything else. People get addicted to anything. They get addicted to extreme sports. They get addicted to junk food, gambling, sex, running, being skinny, caffeine, icecream, alcohol, sleeping tablets and many other legal drugs.

Food addiction is killing millions. The media may not call it addiction because of the negative connotations associated with the word. Fat people aren’t in the same boat as heroin users! But eating food despite the negative consequences is exactly the definition of addiction. If you’re food consumption is having negative effects on your health then you are addicted to food.

You may argue that cigarettes work on a different brain pathway or different receptors than the other examples I’ve given. Why is this relevant? What is relevant is how risky, unhealthy or destructive the addiction is, independent of brain chemistry.

I don’t think the case of outlawing things that are addictive is valid, otherwise we’d be outlawing practically everything.

What About the Children

Children are taking risks all the time. From riding their bikes to playing in the sun to eating icecream to swimming at the beach. Why is smoking arbitrarily targeted as being special, over and above the other risks that they face?

As adults we have a responsibility to help protect our children. To guide them so that they can live life whilst not taking unnecessary risks. To help them make educated decisions. The idea is the same, whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes or riding a bike. We educate our children. We lead by example. We drill into their heads the risks associated with any activity. We limit the risk we impress onto them from our own activities. We build cycle ways to separate them from traffic risks, and we make alcohol and cigarettes unavailable to them to separate them from the risk they pose. Why is smoking special? In my opinion it isn’t, and we can rule out any philosophy that says any risk to children should be targeted.

Will banning cigarettes save a child from being negatively effected by cigarettes? Yes. Similarly banning cars would save children from dying in car accidents. What philosphy would ban one and not the other? If something can cause harm to children, it doesn’t mean it must get banned.

In my opinion fast food and obesity is a far greater risk to children, yet we haven’t outlawed parents taking their kids to McDonalds. Alcohol is even worse. Regardless of long term risks, there are dramatic short term effects of alcohol. I know many young teenagers who have died with alcohol being a contributing factor. I know of none who have died from smoking.

Passive Smoking

Here’s an important subject. I agree with a philosophy that aims to reduce the risk that people are exposed to by other people’s activities. People should not be forced to take risks they do not want to take.

However many activities do put people other than yourself at risk. Shouting your friends a round of drinks at the bar. Inviting your friends to come to the beach with you. Driving a car. Building a bridge that someone else will use. Building any appliance or equipment that someone else will use. Convincing a friend to share a hobby with you. Parenting children. Taking children to a fast food restaurant. Cooking for others and adding something that tastes good but isn’t healthy. Any role where you are in a position of leadership. All these activities are putting other people’s lives at risk.

Let’s run with the driving car example. Every time you drive your car, you risk injuring or killing others. Should we then be prejudice against those that drive cars? No. We create a system that attempts to control the risks. A system that encourages people to not participate in excessively risky driving habits. This is done through driver training, education and traffic laws.

As an analogy to smoker vs passive smoker, let’s look at motorist vs cyclist. In this analogy, the motorist takes the place of a smoker, and the cyclist takes the place of the passive smoker. Every time the motorist takes to the road, there is a risk to the cyclist. Without the motorist, the risk of a vehicle / bicycle interaction does not exist. The presence of the motorist forces the cyclist to take on risk. So what do we do? We could outlaw vehicles. There are other solutions. We can build cycle ways. This separates the traffic and reduces the risk of an interaction. There is still a risk, and the cyclist has to decide whether he’s willing to tolerate that risk. Short of cycle ways, we can widen the roads so there is enough room to safely pass cyclists. Again there is still a risk, and the cyclist decides whether he’s willing to tolerate that risk. What if the there is no cycle way and the road is narrow? Again, nothing changes, it’s still up to the cyclist to decide what risks he will take. If the road isn’t busy and the traffic is moving slowly, he might decide to go for it. If it’s busy and the traffic is moving quickly, he may decide to avoid that road. Regardless, the cyclist still decides how much exposure to risk he is willing to accept. Actually at no stage is the cyclist FORCED to take risk.

What about children cyclists? We need to do the best we can to teach them how to control the risk of interaction with other vehicles. We need to apply rules onto them, for example let them ride down to the end of the street but not onto the main road. We need to teach them to watch out for traffic, encourage them to wear a helmet and teach them how to maintain a bike in a safe condition.

With these controls, we reduce the risk of death or injury from motorist / cyclist interactions. Unfortunately cyclists still occasionally die. Even children cyclists are occasionally killed. It breaks my heart to see a family endure such a tragedy. Does that mean we should outlaw vehicles to eliminate the risk?

Look at the analogy between the example above and smoking. Imagine we had a government with a carefully thought out philosophy that could be applied in a consistent manner and how the examples given to control risk would apply to smoking. For example having some spaces in public venues where smoking is not permitted, and having other spaces where smoking is permitted, similar to the cycle way control. Think about what sort of philosophy you would like to see as the basis for law making. Consider the consequences to your life and society if we have a philosophy of banning risky activities. How would it apply to the things you enjoy?

What about parents smoking in a confined space with their children present? This is an unacceptable situation, but it’s no different to a parent feeding their child unhealthy food or undertaking risky driving in a vehicle whilst the child is present. The government needs systems to address all those forms of imposing unnecessary risks onto children. Smoking is not special.

What Philosophy Would Target Smoking?

I cannot think of a philosophy, principle or ideology, that when applied consistently, would target smoking over any other risk taking activity. What about something we can measure easily, like number of fatalities or cost to the economy or burden on the health system? If something causes this many fatalities or costs this much to the economy or takes this many hospital beds, then it must be made inaccessible to the public. How would smoking stack up against motor vehicle accidents? How would it stack up to heart disease related to unhealthy lifestyles? How would it compare to alcohol?

Actually, I’ve thought of some principles that could target smoking. Desire of government to control its people? Desire of government to instill fear into its people? Micromanagement of its people? Desire to tend towards a nanny state? Self-gratification of politicians from being perceived as revolutionary law makers? Distraction from issues that are more difficult to resolve? Good old fashioned hypocrisy? These philosophies are probably valid in a technical sense, but I doubt the general public would think they are good philosophies that benefit society.

What Should The Philosophy Be?

In my opinion, the government should foster a system where we are free to decide how we live our lives, and where people are held accountable for their actions. Everything is legal. The government should educate us so that we can make educated decisions. They should show use how to do things safely, and they should make us aware of the risks. They should build infrastructure that allows us to perform activities safely. These are the roles of a government. After that, they should leave it up to us.

This philosophy is not prefect. Perfection is impossible. There will always be deficiencies and compromises. There will always be situations where the result isn’t ideal. This can’t be avoided. For example, if driving is allowed then people are going to die from driving. Those lives could have been saved if driving was illegal. We need to develop a philosophy that is the best compromise and that we can apply consistently.

Disclaimer: Children should not ride a bike. It’s too dangerous.

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