While humanity as a whole is making unmistakeable progress in almost every field imaginable — the number of billionaires has never been higher, the global property insurance sector is seeing continuing and healthy demand, and carbon emissions are sky-high, to name just a few successes — not everyone is happy about where we as a society are going. Life is becoming harder and harder for those who refuse to meekly join the masses of conformist drones. These strong, free-thinking, independent individuals who don’t just accept everything authority figures tell them and who refuse to be browbeaten and shamed into adopting the restrictive mores of an oppressive puritanical hegemony are finding it more and more difficult to smoke in public places. In other parts of the world, chimpanzees and toddlers alike are afforded the liberty and personal dignity to smoke to their hearts’ and lungs’ content, but meanwhile, in this part of the world, grown adults in supposedly progressive, liberal cities such as New York and Vancouver are forced into a Gandhian civil disobedience of Orwellian laws banning smoking in city parks.
These kinds of restrictive policies are often criticized as ‘paternalistic’, though I’m not sure why they don’t use the term ‘maternalistic’ instead. If you think about it, all those stories about some kid being forced by an old-school parent to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes or something like that in order to cleverly teach them a lesson about how smoking is bad involve fathers, not mothers. Mothers are never implicated in these tales as being those who decided that prescribing smoking would be a good way to keep a child from smoking. In any case, paternalism is about The Man (or The Woman, in the case of maternalism) telling you you can’t do something because it’s bad for you. But what The Man just doesn’t seem to get is that sometimes stuff that’s bad for you is fun. Some people do understand that, though, and that’s why they seek out lush, verdant parks full of children playing in the fresh air in which to smoke, and why they search for well-peopled street intersections so they can have someone to triumphantly and incessantly rev their bad-ass Harleys at or pump their highly-pimped car stereos at, and why they hunt out the most pristine, ecologically sensitive areas to tear through on their ATVs. There is risk and peril involved in all this, no doubt, but that doesn’t scare these folks off — they are willing to make even the most profound sacrifices of their surroundings in order to enjoy themselves. These people are adventurers and pioneers — much like extreme-sports enthusiasts who laugh at the danger and intrepidly take it upon themselves to create employment and a sense of purpose for so many Sherpas, filmmakers, search-and-rescue teams, advertisers for energy drink companies, and organizers of motivational speaking tours — and much like the pioneers and discoverers of the New World who boldly ventured into the unknown and civilized the heathen lands for lucrative economic exploitation with only occasional use of incessant military campaigns and genocide.
It might occur to you, though, that a ban on smoking in parks needn’t be motivated by paternalism at all. To pick an everyday example, while some people might find that gargling toxic waste and spitting it into the municipal water supply is enjoyable and relaxing, a law prohibiting such gargling and spitting might not be motivated by a paternalistic desire to protect toxic waste garglers so much as by a desire to prevent dumping of toxic waste into the water supply. Similarly, a ban on smoking in parks doesn’t necessarily stem from a paternalistic desire to stop smokers from smoking — one could cogently argue that the primary goal is to reduce non-smokers’ exposure to second-hand smoke. But that argument is boring, so we should instead be outraged that Big Government is again treading upon the rights of the oppressed smoker.
Obviously these crusaders for health, safety, conservation, and other lame things are killjoys. Have these grim-faced busybodies never known the rush that you get when exhaling cigarette smoke in someone’s face, that you feel when texting while driving, that you experience while torquing your four-wheeler through a patch of rare wildflowers, that you get while firing your AK-47 into the air during a wedding celebration or New Year’s celebration and accidentally killing someone? Have they never known the sheer delight and ecstasy of dying slowly from emphysema or lung cancer while receiving health care subsidized in part by non-smoking chumps?
While on the topic of cancer, cancer gets a bad rap these days, but dig beneath the surface of this issue and you’ll find some controversial and confusing points to consider. Consider the case of chimney sweep’s carcinoma, a cancer of the scrotum that affected many young chimney sweeps. I’m no oncologist, but I’ve seen Mary Poppins, and I recall distinctly that chimney sweeps were a very jolly, rollicking bunch who showed no signs of discomfort resulting from being compelled to work as child labourers in horrendously inhumane conditions. Clearly, Disney’s portrayal of the chimney sweep lifestyle raises serious doubts as to the effects of carcinomas. A second point that might also lead one to question whether cancer is all that bad is the existence of the charitable organization Cops for Cancer. Seriously, if cancer is really so bad, why is there a prominent advocacy group advocating for cancer? Now, if there were a charity called Cops Against Cancer, it would be easier to believe that cancer might actually be a bad thing. But don’t get me wrong: the point here isn’t to say that cancer isn’t bad, it’s merely to say that it’s obviously a confusing issue.
But say we accept that perhaps some people could smoke a bit less, eat a bit healthier, drive a bit more safely, and make other changes that, implausible as it sounds, would somehow allow them to retain a tolerable level of quality of life while reducing harmful short-term or long-term impacts on others. Fine, but other than legislation and enforcement, what approaches could public health officials take to encourage members of the public to make such behavioural changes? Are there any more informal approaches they could take? It turns out the answer is yes. Rather than simply exerting legal pressure on individuals to adopt healthy lifestyles, public health officials could take advantage of social pressures and cultural norms to help people to change their habits. For example, nowadays when kids taunt each other with zingers like “Yo mama’s so fat she gets a group discount” or “Yo mama’s so fat it takes her a long time to floss ’cause she’s got baleen instead of regular teeth like a normal-sized human”, it’s all obviously such hyperbolic, good-natured, and well-intentioned mother-insulting that the experience is brushed off and no one really learns much from it except how to hone their insulting techniques. However, if the schoolyard taunts were more accurate, such as “Yo mama’s so fat she suffers from type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, and angina, and she is likely perceived by many persons in our culture as being relatively sexually unattractive due to her body shape”, kids might start to get the message that obesity has been shown to be associated with various morbidities and can be largely controlled or avoided through a broad set of living habits that are compatible with a diverse range of lifestyle choices.