Smoke and morals


Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman introduced his new anti-smoking legislation last month, striking a presumed note of moderation: "And so we're saying to Ontarians, if you want to smoke at home, we're not going to stop you."

That's generous. But just about everywhere else, smoking will be forbidden — even in private clubs, Legion halls and yes, parking garages, where loiterers presumably might be afflicted by "deadly second-hand smoke". Three months ago, the Ontario Medical Association asked the government to ban smoking in private cars if children were present. So far that is not on the agenda, but otherwise Ontario has embraced the full zealotry of the anti-smoking program.

That's not new. But what is striking is how passionate the Ontario government is about providing moral instruction to its citizens when it comes to matters of health.

The anti-smoking strategy includes a government-funded Web site entitled It assures us that it is not "meant to be an insult to smokers" because "smokers aren't stupid." Rather it offers "social commentary on the choice to smoke or not to smoke." Oh. Browse the Web site and the only possible conclusion is that if smokers aren't stupid — meaning that they don't know better — then they are deliberately making bad choices. That is to say, they are morally inferior.

Governments have been in the "social commentary" business for a long while. Historically, they may have used their coercive powers to build up the moral character of their citizens — one thinks of prohibition or movie ratings or gambling restrictions. Now, government energy is focused on health. If you wish to let your soul rot in hell, the government will affirm your right to do so — but don't try it with your body.

So we have the rather ironic situation that the government of Ontario operates casinos, but now won't let you smoke in them. The government of Ontario — like other provinces — will entice the public to gamble, but as you are wagering away the grocery money, don't think about lighting a cigarette. Our universities promote condoms to new students with great enthusiasm to avoid disease; nary a word is offered that might question promiscuity as a bad moral choice. Public health authorities will facilitate your drug habit with free needles but are not so keen about telling you that it is simply wrong to shoot yourself up.

On health matters, the government is a veritable church lady. On other matters, it is the permissive mother on the block whose house the other children are forbidden from playing at.

The anti-smoking legislation caps a rather remarkable year on the health front. A private member's bill sailed through Queen's Park making helmets mandatory for adults when cycling, rollerblading or skateboarding. My colleague Andrew Coyne demolished the evidentiary case for mandatory bike helmets in November in these pages, but no matter. The initiative is a moral one: There exists a moral imperative to minimize all health risk, and should you dissent, the law will bind you.

More examples? Last September, the government moved to ban fresh sushi, insisting upon frozen instead because it would be safer. That proved a stretch too far, so the ban did not go through.

What apparently cannot be rescinded is the mentality that free citizens cannot be trusted to manage their own health. When it comes to thorny social issues, those advocating the abandonment of traditional mores insist on the supremacy of individual consciences. But not when it comes to health. Our public policy will not vigorously discourage someone from bearing children out of wedlock, with all its attendant pathologies, but it will do its best to make sure those children's bathwater is the right temperature.

Bathwater? Perhaps you are unfamiliar with a recent public campaign by Toronto Public Health, aimed at getting parents not to burn their children in the bath. A full campaign, complete with posters, brochures and flyers all over Toronto's transit system, funded fully by the Ontario taxpayer, telling parents to check the temperature of their hot water, lest the little ones scald themselves. What kind of mentality spends public health dollars to tell parents what every 14-year-old babysitter knows — that you check the water temperature before plunging Junior in the tub?

The safety and smoking fanatics operate on the assumption that people are not responsible enough to be trusted with their freedom. So they must be harassed and nagged about bike helmets and bathwater, and if they don't comply, then good habits simply must be legislated. We will be healthy, whether we like it or not.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Smoke and morals." National Post, (Canada) 14 January 14, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. De Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is currently assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish as a curate, and as a chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here.

Copyright © 2005 National Post

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