When the North Carolina legislature passed a statewide smoking ban in 2009, it gave local governments the power to exceed the state prohibition by restricting smoking in additional locations, including local government grounds, such as parks.
As expected, municipalities have taken advantage of this power by restricting smoking in public outdoor areas. Earlier this year, Raleigh passed an ordinance banning smoking in parks and greenways.
Now, Greensboro is considering a similar type of ban. Greensboro is still accepting comments from the public on this proposal.
When the state bans smoking in private locations, such as restaurants, it is violating the property rights of private property owners. A property owner should be able to decide whether or not he wants to allow smoking in his establishment. Potential patrons can make informed decisions as to whether they want to visit the establishment.
When it comes to public parks, such a property rights argument doesn’t exist. However, there may even be more compelling arguments. Parks and open public grounds aren’t enclosed areas and as a result no legitimate health argument exists. There’s a big atmosphere that can protect people from someone smoking a cigarette on a bench hundreds of feet away.
Proponents of an outdoor ban argue that such a ban is necessary to prevent litter. By this logic, we should ban drinking soda because people fail to throw away their soda cans. If there’s a problem with litter in public parks, then laws prohibiting litter are the solution. Favoring some litter sources over other litter sources isn’t a way to address littering but to attack unpopular actions (i.e. smoking).
Ultimately, these smoking bans are all about those in power imposing the preferences of some over the freedoms of others. There are actions that people take that some of us don’t like. However, so long as we have a voluntary way of avoiding some concrete harm imposed upon us, then we should allow fellow citizens to exercise their freedoms. After all, things come full circle. There’s going to be a time when things we do may be unpopular.
There’s a slippery slope when passing a law such as a statewide smoking ban. The ban is going to get broader in scope because the green light has been given to making certain actions illegal based on the preferences of others. We are seeing this slope in action now as local governments expand the ban to outdoor parks.
There’s little reason to think that smoking won’t eventually be prohibited on public sidewalks or other public locations. The employee who now can’t smoke inside at work won’t be able to step outside on a public sidewalk for a smoking break. For that matter, it’s difficult to see why there wouldn’t be a prohibition on smoking in private outdoor spaces at some point.
I don’t smoke and those I know have died from smoking. I also don’t like being around smoke. Having said that, I recognize that freedom to take unpopular action is not about public opinion polls or my own feelings. In a free society, we have to respect other people’s actions, no matter how much their actions bother us. When their actions infringe upon on our own freedoms, then there’s an issue worth discussing.