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A Smoking Ban On Balconies? Warsaw Tests The Edges Of Freedom

Proposals to ban smoking on private balconies are led by activists trying to modify citizen’s lifestyles and fight 'ideologically different phenomena,' even when the real harm of these divergent behaviors is negligible.

A smoking ban on balconies has already been introduced in Lithuania
A smoking ban on balconies has already been introduced in Lithuania
Piotr Beniuszys


WARSAW — Could there soon be a ban on smoking cigarettes on balconies in Warsaw? Or maybe one day even smoking inside private apartments? A smoking ban on balconies has already been introduced in Lithuania, so there is a precedent and nothing seems to stand in the way of a Polish version. Renata Niewitecka, a council member of the city of Warsaw decided to consult the residents on the issue. If the majority wants to ban the minority from smoking on balconies, will the council democratically vote for such a ban? Only time will tell.

The majority voting to impose a ban that will only affect the lives of a minority and deprive them of certain rights, whether trivial or important, is a fundamentally debatable issue.

Liberal thinkers have long warned against a democracy based only on enforcing the opinion of the majority because it is just another form of dictatorship. It brings up two old ideas that need to be repeated time and time again. The first is that any democracy bearing the adjective "liberal" is a democracy where the inviolable rights of the minority put a limit on the power of the majority. The second is John Stuart Mill's definition of the scope of individual liberty. According to him, no one (including, of course, the democratic majority) can limit the liberty of a citizen as long as his actions in exercising that liberty does not affect the liberty of another citizen who has an identical scope.

And, regarding smoking cigarettes on a balcony, there is a dilemma that can be translated into the question: "What would John Stuart Mill say?" The limitation of the freedom to poison everyone around with cigarette smoke has been debated since times immemorial and it is indisputable that not only smoking poisons one's body but also that passive smoking is also a thing (that is, the smoker limits the freedom of another person by poisoning them). That is why smoking in enclosed public spaces (transportation, offices, clubs, pubs, stores, restaurants, railway stations, etc.) is unacceptable. But what about private spaces and open air? Since a complete smoking ban is unthinkable, it has to be allowed somewhere. Tenants often agree not to smoke inside their apartments: the balcony then seems like a reasonable choice.

So what would Mill say? He would probably point out that almost all of our behaviors affect other people in some way, and most of the time, neutrally. Though whether the effect is neutral or negative can depend on the sensitivity of the recipient. Whether something falls within the scope of legitimate freedom or goes beyond it depends not so much on the potential to create a negative impact (because that can always happen), but on an objective assessment of the real inconvenience imposed on another person.

That is a nuisance, but maybe harmless.

The case of the smoking ban on balconies is an important dilemma. Can the smoke from one balcony harm a neighbor on another one, or even get through an open window into the apartment and cause a stench there? Of course. And that is a nuisance.

But is it also possible that the smoke from another balcony, because of the way the building is designed, and of the direction of the wind, turns out harmless? Yes, this is also a possibility. Therefore, the validity of a total ban on the entire city is questionable.

No smoking sign at Hala Koszyki, Warsaw, Poland — Photo: Kgbo

The criterion of a real nuisance is crucial in assessing the idea of a ban—i.e. if it's limiting someone's freedom. It helps to identify situations in which there is an actual and serious limitation of one person's freedom by another one's behavior from situations where exaggeration, oversensitivity and hysteria prevail. The problem with this criterion, however, is that it can be utterly subjective, vary from case to case, and even escape the judgment of a potential Solomon.

What else to ban?

There are plenty of potential bans that are at the very least problematic in terms of deciding how real of a nuisance they are. How about a ban on talking on the phone on the bus, or one on "insulting religious feelings' at a ticketed event, on being shirtless in the street in hot weather for men who do not resemble Adonis, a ban on drinking alcohol in urban recreational spaces, the abolition of the first class in trains, an implementation of one day a week of forced veganism in canteens, a ban on meat sales at promotional prices, ads for candy and cars, the abolition of zoos, paintball, SUV sales, shops opening on Sundays (even online), underage dog walkers, balloon sales, strawberry sales in the winter (and tangerine in the summer), fishing at night?

Many of these ideas have not yet been mooted in Poland. But local activists in various parts of Europe have already raised them—like the Lithuanian activists banning smoking on private balconies.

The subjective nature of assessing the nuisance of a given phenomenon is, of course, related to the ideological motivations of the activists advocating particular bans. It is often the case that a given behavior hardly ever really bothers anyone, but the "pain" is caused by the very awareness that someone somewhere lives a different lifestyle based on values the activist considers contrary to his beliefs.

A better direction would be a certain tolerance.

The properness of an era is based on the fact that most activists consider certain phenomena ideologically correct (that are then privileged, and pointing out their real inconvenience is poorly looked upon, and even rude—how dare you criticize urban cyclists?!). Other behaviors are stigmatized as inappropriate, arousing the disapproval of activists (then every slightest pretext is used to exaggerate their alleged inconvenience—like smoking or eating meat). All these minor bans add up to a general idea of modifying the citizens' lifestyle, fighting the "ideologically different" and limiting the diversity of lifestyles of people in the community.

This is not the way to go. A better direction would be a certain tolerance, whether towards the heathen, the Jesus freak, the bougie or even the pinko.

We live together, side by side, sometimes close to each other. We are different, we like diverse things and dislike others. We make choices, sometimes stupid, sometimes wise (though some of us make stupid decisions more often than others). We watch each other and now and then we instinctively get hurt when we see someone choose what we consider to be more stupidly or just different from us. It hurts us, but it's not always bothersome enough to immediately wish that the other person would be forced by some authority to change their behavior.

"Live and let live" used to be the flagship principle of British society (though it has changed somewhat nowadays). It is worthwhile, for the sake of harmonious coexistence, to sometimes give it priority over the impulse of holy indignation or the desire to make things right.

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