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On my lunch break last week I observed a woman glare at and the yell at a man smoking next to her at the crosswalk. Her desire for him to not smoke on her was fair. They both had to be standing there to cross the road, and the woman could not leave without going out of her way and the man was making no effort to reduce the smoke blown by the wind directly into this woman’s face. This woman had every right to politely ask the man to step away (not yell or make passive aggressive noises though).

I have noticed that people are quite happy to comment to strangers about their smoking habits: how it’s bad, dirty, disgusting, the list goes on. We seem to feel that it is our duty to inform others that they are doing something wrong. I have discussed my dislike in “shaming” as a tool to stop people doing bad things (like smoking), so it is no surprise I don’t like this.

What bothers me, however, is the inconsistency. Okay, so you think that you have a right to tell a stranger they are doing something disgusting by smoking? Then why not tell the person eating a giant bag of fast food with a 40oz soda? We all know that’s not good for you either. Maybe it’s an issue of damage to others. A person eating fast food is going to make themselves sick but it won’t affect those around them, smoking on the other hand is known to have damaging effects on those in the surrounding area.

Okay, that seems like a reasonable hypothesis. But it doesn’t seem to hold. Here’s something I find far more disgusting than a person smoking as they walk by me: a person sneezing or coughing as they pass with no effort to cover their mouths. Seriously, it seems as though when people are outside they don’t follow basic rules of hygiene or etiquette. It would seem as though it were perfectly reasonable to sneeze on someone as you pass, or to just spit in the street (this is a pet peeve of mine). I have NEVER seen anyone called out by a stranger for coughing or sneezing without covering their mouths, and I have also never seen anyone do this for a person spitting along the sidewalk.
I am far more likely to get sick from the sneeze as a person passes me then from a puff of smoke as they walk past. Frankly, I would much rather be outside standing next to someone who blew smoke in my face than someone who sneezed in my face. And the risks of sickness or disease are much higher from the sneezer than the smoker.

I just can’t understand why people feel they have the right to comment on this one particular action of another. Yes it’s bad for them, but we are not their parents. I would understand if there were consistency; a consistent calling out of those who risked the health of others with their behavior: smoking, sneezing without covering ones mouth, and even drinking and driving. I have seen far more smokers called out by strangers than I have seen drinkers called out by strangers for getting into their cars while obviously un-sober.

I can’t quiet understand what is going on here. What is the purpose of calling out smokers and no one else? Yes, we have the right to not be “smoked on”, in which case we should politely ask someone to move away, not yell, lecture, or tut and sigh and other passive aggressive gestures.

If we are genuinely concerned about the potential harm a person could cause to others then let’s focus on the more damaging things: coughing/sneezing in a confined space while making no effort to cover ones face, drinking and driving, texting and driving. The effects of the smoke from a smoker passing you outside on the street are likely to be none, so why is this what we focus our efforts on?