Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades

Pissing Into The Wind

An allegory about public smoking, 2011.

Imagine you visit a foreign country where there is no law or even taboo against urinating in public. The entire place smells like piss, the concrete anywhere people congregate is always stained yellow, and you have to keep an eye out that you don't walk through a stream of someone's urine as they're just standing there pissing on the sidewalk like it's perfectly okay.

It's possible to find respite in some places. Most restaurants have non-peeing sections, which the majority of the population considers reasonable; you want to be able to taste your food and not someone else's piss, right? Even then, it dribbles across the floor from one section to the other, since they're not water-tight, and even if they were, people would track it across with them as they walked from one section to another.

A few parts of the country have gone so far as to ban urination in all restaurants, or even all public businesses, mostly for the sake of the employees who would otherwise be enclosed in there with their customers' urine all day, every day; but many people consider this to be an unjust suspension of the pissers' personal liberties to piss when and wherever they please. Even in those places where pissing is banned indoors, people still track it in with them, dripping from where they peed on themselves, or it runs in from open doors or pissing-okay patios with no separation from the main building; and even if you can avoid all that, you have to go outside eventually where you will inevitably be faced with the disgusting, unhealthy, free-pissing environment on the street.

There are a few rare places where urination is banned outdoors, within a certain radius of some sufficiently important location, or even more rarely large campuses where it is allowed only in designated pissing areas. But one patch of dry ground surrounded by urine-soaked streets, and exposed public piss-holes leaking out into the surrounding grounds, hardly help anybody avoid expose to the popular "urine culture".

Some people in this society have an unusual allergic reaction to urea, a chemical in urine. To avoid constant nausea and other symptoms, these people need to stay indoors as much as possible and avoid places where large numbers of people socialize, because of the high levels of urine found on the streets and the high proportion of people who think public urination is fine. These allergic people are of course more vocal than the general populace about the problems of public urination, but they are generally dismissed as having a personal medical problem which should not limit others' freedom to piss wherever they'd like. Many people even blatantly flaunt the anti-urination restrictions in some places, even when called out on it; they consider it their right to piss anywhere, and any attempt to stop them an affront to their rights.

This is what the world looks like to me, as someone with a rather severe allergy to cigarette smoke. Even living in California, one of the places with the tightest legal restrictions of smoking in the world, I cannot go about a single day — even just from home to work, out to lunch and back, and then home again, no errands much less attempts to socialize — without encountering many people actively smoking on the streets, people still stinking of it indoors, and even in their absence, constant reminders of their continual presence in the form of a pervasive lingering stench and the litter of cigarette butts everywhere.

In times when I have had to rely on public transportation and walking to get around, requiring me to be out on the streets in places where many people congregate, I could not get even from home to work without becoming nauseous — literally vomiting, every morning without fail, by the time I got to the office, despite feeling perfectly healthy in the safety of my own home before I left.

Obviously I am much more sensitive to this problem than ordinary people, but that doesn't make it any less of a problem, or only my problem. Smoking in public is pollution, just as much as public urination. It is disgusting, and unhealthy to be continuously exposed to, even for ordinary people. Sure, inhaling a little bit of second-hand smoke isn't going to kill you, not most people at least; but then neither is walking through a puddle of urine. Nevertheless, long-term exposure to either is unsanitary and both have proven health risks; yet one is almost universally considered vile and disgusting to do in public, while the other is a popular pasttime.

People protest that limiting their smoking is a violation of their rights; but why then is limiting public urination not equally such a violation? Smoking isn't even a necessary bodily function like urination; people have to piss somewhere, some time, eventually, but nobody ever has to smoke. We could all get by just fine with nobody ever smoking at all, yet we grant by custom and by law great freedom to do this unnecessary polluting activity, while the biologically compulsory one is shunned and tightly regulated.

To be clear, I am generally opposed to regulating the actions of other people by law. I am of a rather permissive bent and generally believe that any action which does not infringe upon another's rights should be allowed. I am generally opposed to the War on Drugs and believe that people should be permitted to put whatever substances they like into their own bodies.

How then can I call for the banning of smoking in public? By the same logic that justifies bans on public urination. Every member of the public has rights in public property, including natural resources such as soil, water, and air. We each have the right to complain when that property we own in common is despoiled or vandalized, e.g. polluted.

We recognize that it is wrong to allow people to spew urine on public soil, even though everyone has to pee some time. We recognize that it is wrong to spew toxins into the air from industrial processes, even though these processes are necessary for modern civilization as we know it. Why then do we not bat an eye at the constant pollution of our air by a completely unproductive recreational act that could be publicly banned with no serious consequences besides pissing off a horde of self-righteous, inconsiderate addicts who think their rights trump everyone else's? You have a right to decide what goes into your body, sure thing; and I have a right to decide what goes into mine. Your right to put something into your own lungs ends when it spills out into the air that I have to breath too.

I am even fine with people smoking indoors, in their own homes or other private property where such is permitted, to the same extent that I don't care where in your house you choose to piss. So long as...

  • you own your home outright and aren't merely living temporarily in someone else's home
    (should your landlord have to deal with your urine-soaked carpets, or smoke-drenched curtains?);
  • you make sure that your pollution stays inside your space and doesn't spill out into the streets or your neighbors' property
    (your right to do what you want on your own property ends at your property line; once it crosses onto other private or public property, you are to be held accountable for that);
  • you do not have dependents, tenants, or employees who must live or work there with you
    (should your kids grow up in a home where they get infections from the urine-soaked ground they play on, or asthma from the smoke-drenched air they breath?);
    and
  • you do not open the space to the general public, as in a public restaurant or storefront
    (if you are making your space into a public space, then for the duration that it's open to the public, the laws of public spaces should apply, from anti-discrimination to anti-pollution)

...then I think you should be permitted to sit on your couch and smoke anything you want, or piss all over your own carpet to your heart's content. Live in whatever filthy squalor you like, by yourself in your own space. Just don't expect me to come visit you very often.

To be clear again, I don't advocate that smoking be outright banned everywhere. Only that the polluting effects of it must be contained; it must be possible for a person to go about their day in public places without being involuntarily exposed to other people's drugs. If people want to smoke in public places outside their own homes, perhaps we should do as we do with urination: quarantine it off into its own secluded area, and flush the waste safely away when they are done.

There are already some steps toward this, with smoke-free areas within a certain radius of some locations such as bus stops, and occasional large areas such as school campuses where smoking is prohibited except in designated areas. But so long as someone can stand upwind just outside the specified radius, and until smoke itself learns to obey the signs limiting it to a designated area, such measures are hardly effective at all. The smoke itself, not just the people smoking, needs to be contained to protect the public air quality.

You say businesses are not equipped with cyclable smoking airlocks, and are unlikely to invest in them, and this would thus be tantamount to a ban on smoking anywhere outside one's own home? If enough people really want to smoke in public businesses, then quarantined smoking closets will be profitable investments for such businesses, to attract more customers than those who don't have them. And even if not, that's fine; you don't need to smoke, and if you really want to, you can wait until you get home. What you need to do is keep your smoke to yourself by whatever means necessary, even if that means — gasp — not smoking sometimes.