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07/03/06
On Smoking Bans
Filed under: Technology and the Law
Posted by: site admin @ 8:51 am

We’ve had smoking bans in place where I live for a while now. Currently, they’re county wide - but there’s some talk of a statewide ban just to level the playing field. While I’m interested in health, I’m not convinced this is the best approach.

The reason is this: Anytime you legislate to a particular process rather than against an outcome, you run the risk of enabling that outcome via a different, previously unimagined path. And, because techonology always moves faster than the law (at least it does in this century), this can mean that lots of harm can occur along that unintended path before the law catches up.

Let’s use smoking bans as an example. What’s the real goal here? Smoking bans are based on a public health issue. We know that smoke, either first hand or second hand, is a significant agent in the instigation of many diseases. Because of that, we want to improve public health by limiting people’s exposure to smoke. Until we legislate smoking out of existence (which is very unlikely), we must resort to other means to limit the health effects of smoking on the population.

The approach where I live is to ban smoking in a whole list of public places, including restaurants and bars. What this does is drive the smokers outside (flashback to the high school “smokehole”). This is an example of legislating a particular process. It doesn’t eliminate the second hand smoke from outdoor spaces though - we just assume that the pollution will waft away and be diluted in the atmosphere.

A better, more complete approach, would be to simply legislate the desired outcome - that enclosed spaces can contain no more than so many parts per billion of various pollutants. Then leave it to the owners/ operators of those spaces to figure out how to acheive that goal. They might choose to ban smoking on their premises. Or, they might choose to use clean room technology1 to filter the air. Similar to the way a kitchen stove top hood works, this techology can be used to vacuum up the pollutants before they circulate. The advantage of the second is that, while it is more expensive, it keeps the smokers out of public places where the pollution they create isn’t filtered.

Without an approach that looks to the real issue of airborne pollutants, we could easily end up with the creation of other nicotine transfer devices that don’t involve “smoking” and thus are not banned under currently law, but yet still create just as much of a health hazard because they create just as many airborne pollutants.

It’s easy to pass laws that address specific problems. It’s harder to really think through the issues to determine what the real problem is. But this extra work will pay off in the long run - because it will result in laws that truly express their underlying philosphy and, as a result, are durable in the face of change.

NOTES:
1. The technology used to keep semiconductor fabs clean enough for chip manufacturing.

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