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Saturday 22 September 2018
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Smoking gun

The Tobacco Bill now being debated in Parliament seems to be a case of using a shotgun to kill a mosquito. And, as with a shotgun, there is the danger of injuring innocent bystanders while the mosquito flies free.

To be sure, smoking leads to major health problems for many people. Heart disease, strokes, and cancer are three of the five leading causes of death in Trinidad and Tobago, and all these diseases have been linked to tobacco use. But, at the heart of this issue is the question of rights, including people’s right to harm themselves. A smoker, after all, chooses to smoke. Since people own their bodies (save in slave cultures) it is therefore their right to do as they please with themselves. In respect to tobacco legislation, two main counter-arguments to this position are generally proffered: first, that advertising persuades people to start and continue smoking; and, secondly, that second-hand smoke is as harmful as smoking itself.

The first argument is really applicable only to children, and in this regard legislation should certainly be as punitive as possible. Otherwise, it cannot be assumed in the absence of evidence that adults are so easily brainwashed by advertising and, in any case, tobacco advertising on the electronic media has long vanished due to a self-imposed ban by the tobacco companies (who no doubt wished to avoid the kind of legal action brought against them by nicotine addicts in the United States and other countries). The second argument, despite claims to the contrary by several MPs, is not a settled issue – the scientific evidence that prolonged exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke causes health problems is still equivocal.

What the Independent Senators have been particularly concerned about, however, are the penalties imposed on citizens for breaching this proposed law. Senator Ramesh Deosaran has pointed to sums ranging from $20,000 to $1 million for selling cigarettes to under-aged persons and other transgressions, in addition to jail time, while Senator Helen Drayton has noted that the Bill in effect invades the privacy of the home by allowing a domestic worker to take action against her employer for smoking. There are two problems with these clauses: they contravene the basic jurisprudential principle that punishment must be proportional to the seriousness of the transgression; and, two, they give the State an excuse to chip away at Sector 4 (c) of the Constitution – “the right of the individual to respect for his private and family life.”

Apart from these issues, the unworkability of the Bill has also been raised: will these laws really be enforced? It cannot be reasonably argued that a draconian Bill is justified because it sends a strong message about the dangers of tobacco use. Passing legislation which cannot or will not be enforced sends an even stronger message about the vapidity of rule of law, and this is not an attitude which any government should want to foster. Besides, legislation in itself will not lead to a reduction in tobacco use.

At the heart of this Bill is a question of political philosophy: should the State impose its authority on citizens for their own good, or should citizens be allowed to make their own choices, even to their detriment? Finding a balance between these two poles has always been the central challenge for modern societies, but history shows that erring in favour of the latter is usually the wiser course.

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