Thursday, March 3, 2005

Public commons & public health & public wellbeing

I've got a bit of SPAM in front of me asking

Do you think public smoking should be banned?

Well, yes I do think public smoking should be banned. However I've been aware the last couple years of howls of protest over this. They're howling of intrusion, by government, into peoples private choices and affairs. That it prohibits the smokers right to enjoy their vice.

As I sit here eating my chocolate truffles, let me say I do appreciate vices (to an extent). However smoking is something which affects others just as much or more so than it affects the smokers.

I'm talking about second hand smoke. There have been many studies about the effect of smoking on others. This ranges from infants in utero to mothers who smoke, to serving persons in bars and restaurents, to anybody else unfortunate enough to sit next to smokers. I'm sure a google search will turn up lots of information so I won't go into it here.

The point is when you are in public you are participating in the commons. This is a concept I remember from high school history, the term common law is also known as the law of the commons. In that historical context the commons are areas set aside by the people of an area for the common use of all the people in the area. For example, in that historical context, it is the commons where people would graze their sheep or other livestock. The societies of that time had a set of laws specifically governing the commons. In other words, the common law governed these commons.

Say we're in a restaurent and people at the next table over are smoking up a storm. They may claim it's their right to enjoy their tobacco, right? However, their smoke simply travels through the air and eventually enters my lungs. In effect they have damaged me because of their vice.

The air in that restaurent is a kind of commons. In fact, the air everywhere, and likewise the water everywhere, is a kind of commons. We all affect the health of the air and water, and at the same time we all breath/drink the air and water. It is something that is, er, common to all of us.

This is how we need to view the environment, that it is a commons, and needs to be treated as common territory. When there's something that's shared in common, such as the air, we can't allow individual "rights" to trump the group wellbeing. Instead the group wellbeing must trump the individual "rights". Otherwise we all suffer.

For example the contents of gasoline and diesel fuel are known to be carcinogenic, especially when burned in a internal-combustion-engine. The exhaust from burning these fuels enters the atmosphere, we breath it, and it is known to cause cancers and other nasty diseases.

Obviously the public wellbeing is being trumped here by something. Many other chemicals have been suspended for the same reason, so why not gasoline and diesel? Obviously part of the WHY is that the gasoline industry would die, as would our quality of life, if the use of gasoline and diesel were suspended because it's carcinogenic.