Debate on COVID vaccinations is reminiscent of smoking bans

Individual ‘rights’ should not take precedent over the health of others

August 10, 2021 5:57 am
Thousands of white flags on a field representing COVID deaths

Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr In America, How Could This Happen is a project by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg on the Armory Parade Grounds. There is a flag planted for each death, with more flags added each day as the death toll increases. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This notion that one’s “rights” are more important than the health and well-being of others has a long history. Our problem with the unvaccinated is just the latest manifestation.

Right. Americans are belatedly lining up in impressive numbers to be immunized against COVID-19. And, still, at about 60% of the population, not enough are doing so to attain the herd immunity needed. 

Yes, the vaccinated can be infected and transmit the virus, though this a relative rarity. This upsurge is really a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

It is not hyperbole to note that these holdouts are sickening and killing others. Outrage over these folks is easy to understand. 

There should, however, be no surprise that these selfish dolts exist. And that label applies both to those who refuse to get vaccinated and to those simply dithering about it. 

People who deny facts and truth to the point of endangering others is sadly, though, a popular national pastime of longstanding. 

See if this sounds familiar:

The medical and scientific community sounds the alarm on something that is harming individuals and those around them.

The experts marshal their evidence and embark on a public education campaign. They make headway, but not enough. Folks still insist on exposing themselves and others to harm, standing on their “individual rights” and denying facts.

This, of course, sounds a lot like the current debate surrounding COVID vaccinations.

But these were also the dynamics that characterized the nation’s march toward smoking bans in public places.

lit cigarette in ashtray smoking
Photo by Ron Cruz via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Then as now, no one was seriously talking about outlawing smokers’ ability to poison themselves. We eventually drew the line, however, at their ability to poison and irritate others. Hence the smoking bans.

Years before local ordinances and state laws mandated smoke-free public places, individual employers began forcing their workers to take their puffing outside.

People of a certain age like me remember well the tobacco fog and smell that wafted over and permeated the workplace. We also remember the ravings of smokers insisting on their rights – including the right, apparently, to sicken others with their second-hand smoke.

The Surgeon General first published a warning on the health effects of smoking in 1964. Bans on cigarette advertising followed a few years later, as did the warning labels on cigarette packs. The Surgeon General reported on the ill effects of second-hand smoke in 1972. Governments began imposing smoking bans in public buildings. But the extensive smoking bans we know today in restaurants, bars and most other buildings didn’t occur until the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The resistance was fierce. Smokers were aided in this by the tobacco industry generally. We now know that these corporate giants were well aware of the cancer risks and fought the bans anyway. Before that, also well aware that they were selling cancer sticks, the industry marketed its deadly products, even trying to addict young people.


What followed eventually were lawsuits that resulted in $208 billion in settlement payments to the states over 25 years.

In a way, smoking bans are an apt analogy for our current vaccination problems. We knew of the cancer risks of tobacco in the 60s. And the smoking bans that protect us today didn’t occur until 30 years later or longer.

We don’t have that kind of time with COVID, particularly with the emergence of the delta variant.

Are you wishing we could similarly sue the unvaccinated and purveyors of vaccine misinformation, including those holding elected office? If there were a way, not a bad idea. If their own health and the health of others doesn’t motivate them, perhaps hits to their wallets will. It’s why some folks are talking about making the unvaccinated pay higher amounts for health insurance. This is a reasonable idea.

But despite the limits of the analogy, there is a lesson in the smoking wars for our current plight with the unvaccinated. Some governments are imposing requirements on public employees that they either get vaccinated or get weekly COVID tests, though public employee unions are fighting this. Many private companies are balking as well, including, reportedly, health care organizations. 

Huh? Health care organizations? This stumps me as does the resistance of unions, which insist vaccination requirements be collectively bargained.

No, requiring vaccines is the equivalent of mandating hard hats on the job and not driving forklifts into customers.

Just as private entities made their buildings smoke-free back in the day, today they should protect their employees and customers by requiring vaccinations and testing as conditions of employment. 

Other examples of resistance to actions for the public good because of “individual rights” abound. 

Take climate change. The evidence is in — and mounting. But, apparently, I have the right to destroy the earth for the rest of you. Electing the right people to change that is the lesson here.

The evidence on guns is plentiful as well. They are killing us. But my right to bear arms trumps that apparently. Public opinion, and the right elected officials and court majority, can eventually turn this around.

Slavery? We had to fight a civil war to do away with a state’s right to allow its citizens to own human beings, all the while those states and slavers were insisting there was no pernicious effect from slavery on the enslaved. 

Worried about individual rights? I’d prefer that people who insist on rights couple that with responsibility. 

So, here’s a blending of rights and responsibility: Employers have the right to impose reasonable requirements for employment. Smoking bans are among these, but we also recognize the right of employers to ban weapons on the premises.

In a very real sense, the unvaccinated wield a weapon. 

Choosing not to buy from a business that doesn’t require its workers to be vaccinated or tested is also a right. It’s one we can responsibly exercise.

The unvaccinated have no right to infect me or others. And employers, public or private, shouldn’t enable them.


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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the managing editor at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, was editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.