Pet Peeves: the Anti-Smoking campaign

Okay, level off: I am not a smoker. Never tried, never will. I personally believe it’s a bad habit. I have nothing against my friends smoking, but I always try to remind them of the cost it has to their health. If after this they continue smoking, that’s their call. They’re old enough to know, and I’m cool with them exercising their freedom this way.

Now for the rant.

My point with the anti-smoking campaign comes from that age-old debate on education vs. regulation. Some – most – people would say that laws need to be enforced to control certain behavior in order to maintain a certain level of decency or responsiblity in society.

Take smoking for one. I am well aware of the issues surrounding this. The health reasons alone should give people pause, but part of the issue concerns smoker habits. There’s second-hand smoke, which is more dangerous than buffing a cig as there’s nothing filtering the smoke to the one unlucky enough to be in the path of a smoker’s exhaust. Then there’s the litter. During my time in the Ateneo, this was a very real problem: somehow, smokers, especially in the legendary coño bench near the College Caf, can’t seem to make the extra effort to throw their cig butts to the nearest trash can, which in the Ateneo is nearly in every corner. Trash, especially smoking-related trash, became so much that we had to “quarantine” the coño bench as an example, deploying a canary-yellow police tape with “biohazard” written over it.

Yet, for me, it is far more effective to educate your people rather than regulating behavior through the enforcement of certain rules. A law was passed sometime ago limiting smoking in certain areas, especially in enclosed spaces. Smoking was also being banned in campuses, ostensibly to limit its access to students.

My contention with this is in its efficacy. What good is a law that penalizes smoking in restricted zones and the sale of cigarettes to minors if it is not properly enforced?

I always use this example to illustrate my point: one time as I was hanging out at Starbucks Kat, I saw a group of high school students lounging outside. I was surprised – and not a little peeved – to see them whip out cigarettes and start smoking them. My first thought was, isn’t there a law against this?

The other day, I passed by a sari-sari store in my neighborhood. Two boys, perhaps late grade school or early high school, were buying some snacks. Between two fingers of one boy was a lighted cigarette.

What’s the point in the law, then, if it fails in its intended task?

But what was its intent, in the first place? Like laws that ban prostitution, that make jaywalking a criminal offense, or prevent the sale of liquor to minors, the law on smoking was meant to regulate the behavior. These laws were crafted to enforce the thinking that society frowns on certain acts, as aids in ensuring “proper” behavior among the members of society and expose the young in the “right” attitudes and values.

But regulation for me fails to achieve this due to its main “educational” tool: fear and punishment. You avoid a particular behavior because it will be punished. Negative reinforcement may be fine with dogs (as Dr. Pavlov’s experiments show), but humans are different. Isn’t it an adage in this country that somethig is illegal only if you get caught? And how the hell do you regulate sales of “regulated” products like cigarettes among informal retailers? Will the cigarette boy or corner newspaper stand ask for ID? Heck, even some 7-11 outlets don’t ask ID for liquor and cigarette sales, eventhough it’s obvious that the one purchasing is a minor.

People don’t get the reason for the prohibition if all society’s leaders do is regulate. The minds of most people have spent a lifetime doing “correct” behavior because they fear punishment, not because a particular type of behavior is what it is, correct. How many persons avoid brothels because they refuse to degrade the dignity of their fellowman? How many young people avoid drinking liquor because they know their physiology may not be developed enough to handle it? How many people don’t smoke because they know it can lead to seven cancers, and progressively weakens the body? How many people cross the street on pedestrian lanes and walkways because they know it is not only risky to themselves but hampers the easy flow of traffic as well?

True, people can and do continue with “undesirable” behavior despite education. A lot of educated people do a lot of things that would horrify the general public, in the same way that many “uneducated” people live upright, responsible and decent lives. But education entails being informed, especially in the truths and consequences of a particular action or behavior. So long as this holds, then we can trust people to make informed decisions.

And if they continue doing behavior contrary to the information, then that’s democracy for you. At least they’ll know why when you make them pay the cost for continuing with their “undesirable” behavior.

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