We now live in a society in which agents of the government spy on private citizens and dish out fines for behaviour that harms no one but the supposed lawbreaker.
A front-page headline in The Telegram last week read, “Smoking charges laid against taxi drivers.”
This being 2011 — a full decade into the “ban this, ban that” 21st century — it seemed impossible, or highly unlikely, that any taxi driver would light a smoke while he or she had passengers.
Charges were laid against an unspecified number of cabbies after members of the public made complaints. Environmental health officers investigated, and gathered evidence by putting the suspect cabbies under surveillance.
This, too, seemed unlikely. The anti-smoking movement has succeeded in getting some highly onerous decrees passed into law, but spying on cabbies would be a preposterous new low, even for the ban-the-butt crowd.
After The Telegram’s story appeared, I called the newly minted Service N.L. department for clarification. The next day, a department spokesman released some numbers.
Number of charges laid against taxi drivers under the Smoke-free Environment Act: nine.
Number of charges arising from taxi drivers smoking while passengers were in the cab: none.
“In the spring of 2011, we received a number of complaints in the Avalon region, from the public regarding smoking in taxis,” the department spokesman wrote in an email. “These complaints were related to smoking by taxi drivers in their vehicles, when they were parked with no clients inside.”
It is easy to visualize this illegal behaviour.
A taxi driver is waiting for a call from the dispatcher, and he — or she — lights one up. Under the law, he or she must step out of the car, even if it’s raining or snowing and there’s no one in the back seat to face the dangers of second-hand smoke.
Nor will rolling down windows negate the illegal activity. That would be like a bank robber pleading innocence because the gun
Back when citizens were still more interested in personal liberty than blanket bans, the question would have been asked: where is the harm?
Certainly, the cab driver is risking his or her health. But there is no harm — either immediate or potential — to anyone else.
The worst that could happen is the next passenger might enter the cab and be disgusted by the smell of rank tobacco. But putrid tobacco odours are not a health threat.
Quaint, old-fashioned ideas of personal liberty used to hold that the state had no right to interfere in a person’s behaviour if those actions caused no harm to anyone else. (See: free speech, former.)
The young 21st century has trashed many of those notions. Previous generations fought revolutions and wars over them, but today’s boisterous banners know better.
Smoking is indeed a vile and nasty habit, but giving the state a broad right to reach over and grab a butt from someone’s fingers is even more vile and nasty.
The law of unintended consequences hovers over this issue like smoke in a 1980s bar. Banning something for someone’s own good also chisels away some of their personal choice and personal responsibility, and there are other consequences.
A Postmedia News story last week was headlined, “Smoking bans backfiring at some hospitals.”
Apparently, some patients who are addicted to nicotine have been going out in the cold for a puff, causing their IV lines to freeze. Others have attempted to get off hospital property so they can legally have a smoke. People in wheelchairs have been inadvertently locked out.
The downside of smoking bans is clearly foreseeable, even through the haze of the banners’ self-
Brian Jones is a desk editor at
The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org