Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Secondhand Smoke
distributed 10/26/07 - ©2007

"Secondhand smoke" is a term that fills me with hope. Within the last 20 years, that two word phrase has brought about a genuine revolution in social values and laws.

Today, 13 US states, including my home state of Colorado, have laws that define almost all buildings that are open to the public as non-smoking spaces. In restaurants and bars, offices, airports, government buildings and stores, smoking is not allowed -- because of "secondhand smoke".

Secondhand smoke is a vivid object lesson for me in how change can happen. The reality of widespread and significant change in such a remarkably short time gives me optimism that we can deal with the needed transformations in our society's environmental behavior.

It is an exciting, but complicated idea. I guess I'd better explain.

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Within modern times, the health risks of smoking tobacco haven't been a secret. The slang of "coffin nails" for cigarettes makes that pretty obvious. Even though the tobacco companies spent a fortune spreading lies and distorting the truth, the facts won out. In 1964, a report by the US Surgeon General documented the clear statistical linkage between smoking and lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

That report legitimated an ongoing campaign to reduce smoking in the US. One of the more visible parts of that effort were the labels on cigarette packages which warned of the dangers of smoking -- labels that were legally mandated after the 1964 report.

For decades after the famous Surgeon General's report, the predominant approach was to keep hammering at smokers about the way smoking degraded their health, and shortened their lives. That strong message did keep many people from smoking at all. Many smokers took those messages very seriously, and struggled to break a powerful addiction. Others responded in the style of, "Hey, its my life. If I want to kill myself, I can."

Throughout that time, the descriptions about impacts and the focus on choices were placed on the smoker. Health advocates did what they could to trigger informed and rational choices based on clear medical evidence. Still, many smokers celebrated their freedom to do whatever they wanted, and they kept on lighting up.

The situation changed in 1986. In that year, the Surgeon General issued yet another report on smoking (various reports on smoking had been coming in almost annual installments) . This one was titled, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking. The 1986 report, which was one of the first to investigate the topic, concluded that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer among nonsmoking adults, and several respiratory problems among children.

Suddenly, the perspective of personal freedom didn't work anymore. If a smoker said, "If I want to kill myself, I can", the person arguing against smoking could say, "Sure, you can kill yourself, but you don't have the right to kill your family and the people who work with you." The whole framework of individual choice crumbled with the identification of "involuntary smoking."

Instead of a matter of personal choice, smoking became a public health issue. The decisions and addictions of smokers were seen as having important health impacts on the entire community. The 1986 report that defined "secondhand smoke" changed the whole context for the rules about smoking.

That's when smokers started being sent outside to puff. That's when restaurants were required to have well-defined sections to separate smokers and non-smokers. Secondhand smoke is why smoking is prohibited on all airline flights in the US.

Secondhand smoke is why, in the past few years, 13 states have passed laws that outlawed smoking in all public buildings. Out here in the Rocky Mountain West, there is a fairly strong libertarian spirit. But even here in Colorado, the vigorous demands of smokers to do whatever they want didn't hold up against the risk that they created for the people around them.

"Secondhand smoke" provided a totally different approach to the debate about smoking. It shifted the predominant "frame" from personal liberty to social responsibility. It empowered members of the community to speak assertively out of their own interests, instead of meddling in the private lives of others.

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There is a need to make similar shifts in the framing of many environmental topics. Along with, or instead of, appeals to individuals and businesses to do the good thing, we need to start demanding that they do responsible things from a community perspective.

That perspective is most urgently needed in relation to the emission of greenhouse gasses. Just as secondhand smoke is a public health risk, "secondhand" CO2 is a risk to our global health and security. It is not just a private choice when the gasses from power plants, airplanes or cars warp the climate of our planet. Constraints on personal freedom are necessary and appropriate when individual behaviors -- smoking in confined spaces, or energy use that leads to excessive CO2 emissions -- threaten the common good.

Since 1986, the new concept of "secondhand smoke" has allowed communities to say, "you can kill yourself, but you don't have the right to kill anybody else." As the crisis of climate change accelerates, we need similar ways to shift the debate from a focus on personal choices into one that deals with the health of the whole community.

As the development of laws that constrain smoking shows, it can be difficult to define the precise boundaries between the personal and the public. What has been essential in shaping those laws, though, is a shift of the moral framework. The relatively new term of "secondhand smoke" has helped people think and act differently.

I'm convinced that churches and other religious institutions can play an essential role in this sort of "reframing" of the important issues. Indeed, one of our greatest contribution to the environmental cause may be our ability to tap into deep theological and ethical roots as we define the moral context for the public discussion of ethical issues.

Making the connection between secondhand smoke and CO2 is a good place to start.

NOTE: In the coming year, Eco-Justice Ministries plans to do much more extensive work on the creative role of churches in the "strategic framing" of eco-justice issues. If you want to be involved in that discussion, or learn more about what that means, please let me know.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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