Smoking is a serious health hazard … so how can I stand up and talk about human rights with regard to smoking?
And what about the rights of non-smokers to clean air?
This issue makes people uncomfortable, and it makes some people quite angry.
Do people really have a right to smoke? Well, no, not specifically. But look at this context - people diagnosed with mental illness do have legislated rights to:
- make their own choices
- have access to the best possible mental health care
- be treated in the least restrictive manner possible
- to not be discriminated against on the basis of our mental health
- to not be treated in a cruel or inhumane manner, and to be treated with dignity and respect
For example, the right to make our own choices is protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, specifically paragraph (n) “Recognizing the importance for persons with disabilities of their individual autonomy and independence, including the freedom to make their own choices”.
Let’s also remember that I am talking about people who have been deprived of liberty and held against their will in psychiatric wards – with no crime having been committed. We are talking about people who are experiencing the most extreme levels of distress imaginable. And we are talking about an organisation (the hospital) whose aim is supposed to be alleviating that distress.
So while we may not have a specific, legislated right to smoke, in this context we do have the right not to be forced to stop smoking or to have our suffering and restrictions increased.
These are just some of the ways that our rights are being violated by enforced smoking bans:
- Enforced smoking bans deprive people of their right to choice.
- Enforced smoking bans increase suffering and distress.
- Enforced smoking bans are yet another example of unnecessary and inappropriate restriction of mental health patients.
- Enforced smoking bans are only happening to people with mental health issues – why are we being singled out?
- Enforced smoking bans in the context of a psychiatric breakdown are cruel and inhumane.
- Smoking bans are being enforced in a manner deprives us of dignity and respect, including physical searches for cigarettes and punishment for transgressions.
It’s easy to talk about human rights when it’s politically correct and obvious, but what happens in situations like this when the water gets muddy? There are many other scenarios which are not so clear. For example, whose rights are more important here?
The vision-impaired person with a guide dog who works as a cook, or the diner who wants their food prepared in a ‘hygienic’ environment?
The right of a nation such as China to prevent its population reaching unmanageable levels, or the rights of a couple to reproduce?
Sometimes human rights do conflict with each other. Smoking bans could be seen as one more example of that. But there is nothing to be gained by one party trying to shout down the other by claiming that their rights take precedence. Because, of course, all of our rights matter.
The ideal solution is to find a way in which all parties may have their rights addressed. Often this is not possible. However in this instance, such a solution is easily possible by the installation of smoking shelters in psych ward courtyards. Small smoking shelters are cheap, easily available, and protect non-smokers from the impact of smoke.
The installation of small smoking shelters in psychiatric ward courtyards would allow everyone’s rights to be respected.
If you have any thoughts about human rights in this context, please add your comments.