Editorial: Where are the boundaries?

There was a fascinating exchange in Parliament recently, during the first consultation/debate over the government’s planned Tobacco Control Bill. The contributions swirled around the touchy subject of government intervention into people’s personal lives and habits; in this case tobacco usage.

 Avid smoker and Member of Parliament, Sir Robin Yearwood, came out swinging against the overreach of government in dictating how he should live his life. He said that the government has no right to tell him or any resident where they can “take a puff”. He juxtaposed the situation against alcohol use and questioned whether or not his government plans to ban alcohol. The argument being that alcohol is also very destructive in our society. 

Sir Robin stated, “I am a firm believer that where your rights end, mine begins and I have a right just like how you the non-smoker have a right. Walking on government street is not yours, it is ours.”  He also combined the much talked about sugar tax/ban into the conversation, saying, “You come and want to ban sugar and in the great America and Europe they ain’t’ ban none yet but the guinea pigs must do it. Nobody or no government is going to put my right at risk and I sit in a government.”

It was clear that Minister Yearwood was passionate about the subject and he has indicated his willingness to fight any attempt by the government to dabble in people’s lives as they enjoy legal avenues of recreation.

In contrast, Minister Asot Michael made an equally impassioned and personal contribution in response to Sir Robin’s presentation. He described his addiction to smoking, the related health consequences, and his desire to be free of the addiction. Just as Sir Robin talked of his personal love and enjoyment of smoking a cigar, Minister Michael spoke of his first-hand experiences and how his love of smoking had led to very serious health challenges.

As he has done before, the Minister of Tourism was very open with the public on his journey with cigarette smoking. He told of his 100 cigarettes per day habit from the age of 13 and his many failed attempts to quit. He said, “I have had two thrombosis [blood clot] in my left leg because of cigarette smoking.” He added, “There is no question that anytime you burn carbon monoxide and intake it into your body, it must have some sort of effect. It is harmful; it is deadly.” In his opinion (and others), “nicotine is more addictive than heroin and cocaine”.

These arguments highlighted the tightrope that the government must walk when it comes to regulation of legal but damaging habits in our country. Alcohol, tobacco and sugar are all major contributors to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – the most significant health risk to our society.  Treating the ultimate health issues related to NCDs is extremely challenging for every nation. It is worse for resource strained countries such as ours.

The issue is, NCDs are preventable but bad habits, usually associated with over-consumption or addiction, make them an extreme burden to our nation. It is why governments seek ways of curbing the bad habits through regulation and taxing.

We understand both sides of this argument but the fact remains, something must be done because we cannot continue on the path that we are on. We are strong supporters of the concept of keeping government out of people’s personal lives but at the same time there must be a balance and boundaries must be established. 

Take for example, Minister Yearwood’s example that the “government street” is for everyone. He is absolutely correct but when another person is subjected to the health risks associated with his second-hand smoke then that person’s rights must take priority.  Further, when the doctor finally tells Sir Robin that he must stop smoking, it is likely because a serious health issue has developed. At that point, the consequences kick in both for the minister, his family and the wider society, and very likely the taxpayers will be asked to help bear the costs associated with whatever treatment is necessary. Is that fair to the taxpayers who have not been part of the risk taking or “enjoyment”?

This is not to pick on Sir Robin because those arguments could apply to anyone for any of the bad habits that cause health issues and societal damage. Think of the costs associated with these bad habits like cancer, diabetes, and alcoholism. Think of the societal damage caused by drunk drivers. Can we continue in the current direction?

If, at this point, you are thinking that we are championing for a more intrusive government that regulates our liberties and tells us how to live, we are not. What we are hoping for is a balance. We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper and we need to ensure that we take care of those less fortunate in life but at the same time, one person’s bad habits should not infringe on another person’s freedom to enjoy life. 

The government has the unenviable task to determine where the boundaries exist and how far the regulations must intervene. We wish them luck and suggest that they embark on a serious set of stakeholder and public consultations. In the end, the health of a nation and big dollars are at stake.

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