Statement by Leon Louw: Freedom, property rights, choice, and smoking

In their press release of 13 June (see below) the Department of Health accuses me of making irresponsible statements about tobacco use. My responsible and considered focus is on fundamental rights in a free society, namely freedom, property rights (including ownership of your body), and choice.

As a lifelong anti-smoker, my concerns have nothing to do with and do not mention legitimate and complex disagreements amongst toxicology experts about tobacco and health.

In a free society, individuals are free to smoke tobacco, ingest sugar, eat meat, or do whatever it is they believe will give them satisfaction provided they do not harm others. That some people might smoke more than is good for their health, eat more sugar than is wise, eat more meat than turns out to be good for them, or indulge in “dangerous” sports, does not give government the right to prescribe to everyone what kind of habits they should follow in their daily lives.

Governments of countries that have attained freedom are entitled to attempt to persuade citizens to avoid habits they consider injurious to their health. They are not entitled to bludgeon citizens by misusing the legal system that is intended for their protection.

This is not the one-dimensional issue portrayed by the Department of Health. Its stance is that as some people harm their health by smoking, and allegedly cause peripheral harm to others, the Department has the right to determine where and when people smoke.

The FMF’s stance is that freedom, property rights and choice underpin a democracy and are tampered with to the detriment of ordinary people.

Freedom is complex. Witness recent debates around the Protection of Information Bill and The Spear. How does one deal with “conflicts” of rights in a free society?

The problem for all freedom-loving people is that these proposals go far beyond the need to protect passive smokers to the point of extreme erosion of lifestyle choices, freedom of association, property rights, basic liberty and personal dignity. Since this is proposed law by decree rather than parliamentary legislation as it should be under the separation of powers, there has been minimal debate or public awareness. To the extent the matter has been addressed in the media my impression is that this is just the next step in the relentless march to full to outright prohibition, and attention being directed, as it already is, to other health and lifestyle targets.

How many business owners, labourers and ordinary civilians realise that all indoor smoking is to be banned, regardless of how effectively isolated, regardless of property rights and freedom of association, and regardless of how restaurants, offices, factories and hotels were forced to spend many millions on partitions and ventilation?

In a free society, it is the property owner who should decide whether people are allowed to smoke or not. Already government has undermined private property rights by insisting that restaurants install enclosed smoking areas. Restaurants are privately owned spaces to which the public are invited, not public property. In a free society, the restaurant owner (and his clientele) should determine whether their property is for smokers only (a cigar bar, for example – destined to be banned under the proposed new regulations), or for non-smokers only, or mixed. This right applies equally to governments, which, via the voters who put them into power, can decide whether smoking is allowed on genuinely public property, that is, state-owned property.

The Department’s proposed new regulations further undermine our already severely curtailed freedom of choice. At the end of June, government will attempt to push through regulations that will prohibit people from smoking in any building, outdoor venue, public or private beach, outdoor drinking or eating area, park, walkway, parking area, within 10 meters of any doorway or window and more. These proposed regulations will impact disproportionately on the poor. Can you imagine trying to get 10 metres away from a spaza shop door in Khayalitsha without encountering another door? It is not possible.

In addition, the FMF is concerned that bad laws, such as this one, will be ignored, not only by the public, but by the police who surely have more pressing duties in our crime-ridden country. Societies that ignore bad laws, become societies that also ignore good laws.

The thin edge of the wedge has already been hammered home by a government ready and willing to split you and your freedom apart. Picking on an issue such as smoking that raises eyebrows and passions, allows the state to take the steps that eventually lead into your home to determine what you eat, what you buy (Local is Lekker), and perhaps with whom you sleep (remember the bad old days of apartheid?).

Ordinary South Africans, whether smokers or non-smokers, must say NO to the proposed tobacco regulations, and to any other attempts by government to undermine freedom, property rights, and individual choice.

Leon Louw
Executive Director

Health responds to Free Market Foundation statement on tobacco control
The Department of Health notes with shock the irresponsible statement of the Free Market Foundation on tobacco use uttered at a press conference.
The department is of a firm view that the use of tobacco products is one of the leading causes of non-communicable diseases in our country and many parts of the world. Over the years since 1994, the department has continued with its programme of tightening legislation around the use of tobacco in our country in line with its mandate of reducing the burden of diseases (caused by tobacco smoke among others) and ensuring that members of the public are protected from the harmful effects of tobacco smoke.
To this end, the department is not about to be soft on tobacco-control legislation despite what the Free Market Foundation would like to believe. The statement of this organisation this morning can best be described as selfish, irresponsible and in fact dangerously ignorant. Mr Leon Louw of the Free Market Foundation must just visit a few hospitals to see patients who are victims of tobacco use before he continues with his irresponsible public statements.

Issued by the Department of Health.
For more information please contact Fidel Hadebe on 012 395-8493 or 079 518-3333.
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