TCS Daily

Kicking Butt

By Dominic Standish - April 11, 2003 12:00 AM

For many Italians, a cigarette at the end of a meal is as de rigueur as an espresso coffee. But those lighting up outside their own homes should watch out for the Carabinieri della Salute. The health police.

Starting on 14 April 2003, smoking will be banned on virtually all regional trains in Italy. In December 2002, a law was passed giving bars and restaurants until 2004 to create non-smoking areas and install ventilation systems. Smoking is already forbidden in most public buildings according to laws passed in 1975 and 1995.

Restrictions on smokers have been imposed in other European countries such as Greece, Romania and Ireland. In the US, smoking has long been banned from bars and restaurants in California and New York introduced similar measures at the end of March 2003. Even the French president, Jacques Chirac, seems to agree with the Americans for once, launching a 'war on tobacco' last month.

It is passive smoking that has been the focus of kicking butt in these countries. Italy is no exception, with the health minister, Girolamo Sirchia, estimating that one in ten lung cancer deaths are caused by passive smoking.

Yet there is no consensus on the link between passive smoking and lung cancer. Research by Professor Robert Nilsson, a toxicologist at Stockholm University, revealed that the increase in the incidence of lung cancer attributed to passive smoking is one order of magnitude lower than that used to justify regulating environmental risks in the US. That means passive smoking is less risky than natural arsenic in water or eating mushrooms twice a week.

Evidence from the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer is inconclusive. A panel of experts convened by the Agency reported last year that second-hand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer by about 20 percent. But it also found no link between children developing cancers when exposed to smoke while in the womb or during childhood.

So why will the new smoking restrictions in Italian bars and restaurants double fines for those smoking in the presence of visibly pregnant women or children under 12 years old? Will pregnant women caught smoking also be fined? With the precautionary principle of 'better safe than sorry' increasingly guiding public policy, scientific evidence of a risk is not necessary before action is taken. Nevertheless, such policies will create significant costs for businesses that need to buy ventilation systems or restructure their premises to provide no smoking areas.

In addition, the new anti-smoking laws draw battle lines between smokers and non-smokers that could lead to many new conflicts. With smokers claiming that they are the victims of others telling them what to do and non-smokers moaning about suffering from passive smoke, the battle lines need to be redrawn.

Despite being a non-smoker with smoke sensitive eyes, I am strongly opposed to the new restrictions on smokers. At least once a week, my wife and I take our two-year-old son and four-month-old baby to eat out in restaurants in Italy and we encounter smokers. But like most people, I am perfectly capable of asking people near us not to smoke.

In these situations, the Italian health minister advises, "call the police." In the city of Trento patients recently did exactly that after a physician refused to stop smoking in a hospital waiting room. He was fined and reported to the national health service. Are we really so pathetic that we need the intervention of the health police?

Inevitably, the health police also arrive uninvited. Uproar broke out in the Ligurian regional council in Genoa last year when two of their armed officers entered a meeting and fined three people for smoking. At the beginning of 2002, there was a blitz with 438 inspections in Rome, Milan and Naples. Some 161 fines were issued to smokers and 33 other economic sanctions were applied to supervisors who had failed to enforce no smoking restrictions.

New smoking laws and increased policing only reduce the personal freedom of smokers and non-smokers. And who knows what the next assignment will be for the health police? Smoke in our eyes about the risks of passive smoking should not prevent us from making our own decisions about our health and how to conduct personal relations.

Dominic Standish is completing a PhD on Venice and environmental risks.

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