One lamentable feature of the contemporary West is the ruthless efficiency of the nanny state. It works overnight. You wake up, slouch over your coffee and corn flakes, and read of the new Bad Thing that must be stopped Right Now. In Britain, the latest activity slated for oblivion is smoking in public parks. Readers, I’m sure, do not need to be reminded that parks are outdoor places; the traditional excuse of “secondhand smoke” does not appear to apply (although it is possible to find “studies” on the dangers of “thirdhand smoke”).
Nevertheless, British officials moved quickly. In September 2013, the mayor of London, alleged conservative Boris Johnson, ordered a “major review of health in the capital,” according to The Independent. The results are already in: Lord Darzi, Britain’s former health minister and the appointed chair of Johnson’s special commission, has said smoking needs to be banned in London’s parks and public squares. There is news that ”councils throughout England are also understood to be analysing how the proposals could be applied locally, paving the way for potentially the biggest crackdown on smoking since the Smoke Free legislation of 2007.”
The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living; but sometimes I wonder whether the too-closely examined life is not worth living either, for examination uncovers dilemmas where none existed before.
Two articles in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine ask the question of whether employers should, or have the right to, refuse to employ smokers, as increasing numbers do in the 21 states that permit such discrimination against them.
As is by now no secret, smokers are more likely to suffer from many types of illness than non-smokers, and their health insurance is therefore considerably more expensive than that of non-smokers. They impose costs on their employers which weigh upon all workers, smokers or not. (The authors do not take into account that smokers not only contribute to taxes by their habit but, by dying early, reduce pension costs.)
The authors worry that refusal to hire smokers would be discriminatory against people of lower social class, since it is among the latter that smoking is most prevalent. I am not sure that this is right: the majority of people in all social classes now do not smoke, while people who apply for jobs at any particular level are likely to be of the same social class. Except in the case where there is only one applicant for a job, then, it is likely that there will always be an applicant of any given social class who does not smoke. The discrimination remains against smokers, therefore, and not by proxy against members of lower social class.