NOTIONS: Blowing away the ‘I have my rights’ smokescreen

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I’m looking out the window of the hospital room where my wife, Pam, is staying. It’s a beautiful day. Soft white clouds dot the brilliant sky. In the courtyard below, between the hospital and the cancer center, a young woman sits on a bench. She’s pretty, in her sleek leather jacket and tight jeans. Her auburn hair glistens in the sun and brushes her shoulders in the breeze. In one hand, she holds a Palm Pilot. I imagine she’s reading e-mail or checking her calendar. From the other dangles a long, slender cigarette. As I watch, she puffs and puffs, blowing her afterthoughts onto the doctors and nurses passing by.

Inside the hospital, we’re marking a milestone. Aided by shiny new aluminum crutches, Pam just took her first post-operative steps down the polished linoleum hallway.

You see, the smoker’s cancer that has stricken Pam, a lifelong non-smoker who spent years in tobacco-filled rooms as a journalist covering nicotine-addicted politicians and business people, has spread from her mouth to her neck to her salivary glands to her lymph system to her blood stream to her lungs and her bone marrow.

Yesterday, a surgeon removed a lemonsized tumor from Pam’s hip, scraped the remnants clean and rebuilt the badly eroded structure with bone cement. The goal: Keep Pam walking to her sixth round of cancer treatment, in hopes that this one, finally, might save her life.

The day before Pam’s surgery-a day spent virtually bedridden because her hip hurt and the doctors didn’t want her to shatter what was left of this weight-bearing bone- an Indianapolis City-County councilor e-mailed me. He asked if he might share my last column about secondhand smoke with his colleagues. He said some of them still don’t believe secondhand smoke is dangerous.

As Pam was lying in bed that afternoon, she read the letters to the editor about Indianapolis’ proposed ordinance to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places. Many were from smokers saying the government shouldn’t trample on their rights. They said they had the right to smoke. They said no one should take away that right. They tried to scare us by saying that if government takes away the right to smoke, it will take away lots of other rights.

The rights argument is a non-starter, of course, because our rights are and always have been restricted, legally and morally, the instant they infringe on others’ rights.

I have a right to bear arms. But I don’t have the right to bear arms into my friendly neighborhood restaurant and fire randomly at the people dining there.

I have a right to free speech. But I don’t have the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater.

I have a right to consume alcohol and other reaction-slowing drugs. But I don’t have the right to do so while driving thousands of pounds of metal through your neighborhood.

Even if we accept a smoker’s right to commit slow-motion suicide, that right ends the instant that individual’s smoke enters someone else’s lungs, which it invariably does in public places. For at that moment, the biblical and legal “Thou shalt not kill” comes into play.

Knowing of Pam’s illness and the possibility that secondhand smoke triggered it, my cousin sent us some anti-smoking advertisements from the Albuquerque newspaper.

One shows a waitress taking a couple’s order.

A callout from an exit sign says, “HEALTH CODE: Illuminated EXIT signs must have two bulbs in place and be illuminated at all times.”

A callout from a picture on the wall says, “HEALTH CODE: Wall hangings must be hard-fixed, not hung.”

A callout from the waitress’ hands says, “HEALTH CODE: Servers must wash hands with soap and water before working and after restroom breaks.”

A callout from a basket of food says, “HEALTH CODE: Chicken must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.”

A callout from the silverware says, “HEALTH CODE: When sanitizing utensils, water temperature must be at least 180 degrees.”

But the callout from the cigarette smoldering in an ashtray says, “HEALTH CODE:” and the rest is blank.

There was a brouhaha in Indiana last week. In their quest to protect us from salmonella and other bacteria we can’t stomach, state legislators went too far last year. They required that food served in public be prepared by certified food workers-not a bad restriction of our right to infect one another. But they didn’t exempt folks fixing food for church potlucks. So they’re going to change the law.

While state legislators clamor to save us from food poisoning, they’re doing nothing to save us from lung poisoning. We’re left to fight that battle one community at a time.

In Indianapolis, City-County councilors begin hearings on a smoking ban this week. If they cave to the “Don’t-infringe-on-myrights” crowd and once again passively permit secondhand smoke, they may as well authorize random machine gun fire, too.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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