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Tobacco smoke should certainly be considered a toxic chemical, and its risks to human health have been well-known for decades. Any reasonable person -- or indeed anyone who is even slightly familiar with the medical and scientific evidence -- would certainly know this today. Forty years ago, the federal government banned tobacco advertising from radio and television and put warning labels on tobacco products, while class action lawsuits have cost the tobacco companies billions of dollars. Airlines and buses that once had smoking sections banned these long ago for fear of lawsuits from employees and customers, and increasingly state and local governments are banning smoking from all public places, including bars, hotels and restaurants. In this case, then, the hazards of smoking are common knowledge, and the desire on nonsmokers not to be exposed to it is perfectly reasonable. This would not have happened in the past when the majority of people were smokers, but public opinion has changed greatly over the last 30-40 years as awareness of the dangers of tobacco has increased. Therefore, legal, ethical and practical-utilitarian concerns have combined in a way that is gradually driving smokers out of the public arena. Fear of lawsuits, high costs of medical care for smokers, and ethical concerns about the impact on nonsmokers have led government at all levels to attempt to tax, litigate and regulate smoking out of existence. On the federal level, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Surgeon General and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have conducted many studies proving that second-hand smoke, also known as Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) contains at least forty carcinogenic chemicals. All these federal health agencies recommend that "workers should not be involuntarily exposed to tobacco smoke" and that even limited exposure "increases the risk of lung cancer, respiratory diseases, and heart disease" (West 2009). Science has repeatedly demonstrated the dangers of second-hand smoke, and even though the complete ban on smoking may not sit well with libertarians or businesses that naturally dislike government intrusion and regulation on the private sector, treating tobacco use as a public health hazard is the correct policy.
Like California and Delaware before it, New York State banned smoking in all workplaces in 2003, including bars, restaurants and hotels. This law was signed by Republican governor George Pataki after passing the Republican state senate and Democratic legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. Only private clubs run by organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars were exempted, and the fine for violators was a maximum of $1,000. Many other states and cities were considering similar smoking bans, but New York's law was one of the toughest and outlawed the habit even in separate rooms that were ventilated. Brad Rosenstein, treasurer of the New York Restaurant Association (i.e. The bar and restaurant lobby) supported the ban and stated that "most people will get used to it, like they did with airlines. And from a health standpoint, it seems like the right thing to do" (Frumkin 2003). Some bar owners were concerned that that ban would cost them business, and even in Delaware bars and casinos were exempted. People who smoke and drink had a reputation for being better tippers as well, and bar and restaurant employees always made most of their money from tips. Michael Militello agreed that a smoke-free environment was better for the health of employees but expressed the usual businessman's dislike of government interference and regulations, saying "this business is hard enough as it is" (Frumkin 2003). Bartenders and servers regularly cited "second-hand smoke as their number one occupational hazard," although bar and restaurant lobbies regularly opposed restrictive laws up to this time. As late as 2000, Rick Berman of the American Beverage Institute testified against New York City's smoking ban, stating that indoor air quality in bars and restaurants now exceeded OSHA standards thanks to better ventilation. Therefore New York should "allow restaurant managers to make the determination of what his or her customers want from the restaurant," but the smoking ban went into effect just the same (Safety Online 2000).
State and federal law requires every employer to provide a safe workplace and to inform employees of potential risks to health and safety. Violation of these laws and regulations can result in civil and criminal penalties, such as in the case of a Chicago employer who hired illegal immigrants to work around toxic chemicals and was prosecuted for murder when one of them died. At the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, the company hired homeless people to clean up radioactive wastewater without informing them of the dangers. One of the most notorious cases was that of Karen Silkwood, who reported unsafe working conditions and radiation exposure at the Kerr-McGee plant in Oklahoma and died under mysterious circumstances. These are extreme examples that are not only unethical but criminal, but workers employed in industries that expose them to hazardous nuclear, chemical and biological materials have a right to know about the dangers and employers have a duty to take reasonable protective and precautionary measures. As for acceptable or unavoidable risk, a Reasonable Man Test exists in the courts to determine how much exposure to hazards should be tolerated, although this can be a subjective standard that various according to individual, community and cultural norms (Video on Working Conditions 2011).
Smoking is probably the deadliest habit of all from the standpoint of human health, and the medical and scientific evidence for this is overwhelming. At this late date, anyone who is even slightly informed is well aware of this fact. State attorneys general have successfully sued tobacco companies for hundreds of billions of dollars to recover health care costs associated with smoking, as have the families of smokers who became ill or died. Moreover, the federal government banned tobacco advertising on television and radio forty years ago and mandated that health warning labels be placed on all tobacco products. Although military personnel are more likely to smoke than the general civilian population (32% versus 20%), the Defense Department and Veterans' Administration are aware of the high cost of tobacco-related health issues and have set up smoking cessation programs for both active duty and retired personnel (Phillips 2011). At one time, airlines and buses had smoking sections but these were banned many years ago to protect the health of employees and other passengers. It also appears that government at all levels is attempting to tax and regulate smoking out of existence, not least because it has a very practical and utilitarian concern about reducing health care costs associated with smoking. Businesses are also concerned about lawsuits from employees and customers, and therefore have an incentive to go along with these bans and restrictions. In the past, when the majority of people smoked, these laws would never have passed, but today smokers are a minority and in many places are simply no longer allowed to light up in public at all. Of course, there is a smoker's rights movement, but it never seems to have gained much traction given the unquestionable evidence that tobacco smoke kills the smoker as well as the people around them.
From an ethical point-of-view, as well as an ethical and utilitarian one, the course of action on this issue is clear. Second-hand smoke is a great hazard to human health and the federal government recommends that it be eliminated completely, while many state and local governments have passed laws banning smoking indoors. Even the military, which has a much higher number of smokers than the civilian world, also runs a smoking cessation program. Medical and health care costs associated with smoking are absolutely enormous, and there may well be no single factor in the Western world today that does more damage to human health than tobacco use.…[continue]
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