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Quick Question: Time To Leave Smokers Alone?

Fifty years ago this month, the landmark U.S. Surgeon General's report linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer was released.

Over the past half-century, America has become more and more inhospitable to people who smoke — and to tobacco companies. In a recent statement, the Department of Health and Human Services declares its desire "to make the next generation tobacco-free."

We know smoking cigarettes is dangerous. We know secondhand smoke is also dangerous. And for 50 years — as evidenced in this American Lung Association tobacco control timeline — we have witnessed harsher and harsher warning labels, higher and higher cigarette taxes and more and more laws that prohibit smoking in more and more places.

So here is the Quick Question: Is it time to leave smokers — and tobacco companies — alone?

"I believe in treating people like adults," says Don Watkins, a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. "And being an adult consists of making your own assessments about how to nurture and enjoy your life."

If some people want others to stop smoking, Watkins says, "they should have the freedom to try to persuade them to stop. If they don't want to patronize restaurants that allow smoking, they should be free to take their business to the diner across the street. But when a group of politicians decides that they get to impose their ideas, judgments and values on us, that is far more dangerous than any cigarette."

Alan Blum, who runs the at the University of Alabama, comes at the question from another angle. He recently posted a 23-minute video titled Blowing Smoke: The Lost Legacy of the Surgeon General's Report.

"My film was released on the anniversary of the report to counterbalance the celebratory nature of the commemoration, such as you are reading about all month," Blum says. "The effort today is indeed more symbol than substance."

In answer to the question: "The battle has not been won," Blum says, "in large measure because perpetuating the cause — and earning a salary and getting grants along the way — has become the cause."

The fight against smoking, he says, "was hampered and delayed for decades by the perceived fear on the part of elected officials, medical societies, universities, arts and sports organizations, all fearful of antagonizing the politically powerful tobacco industry." The same was true for mass media, he adds.

"When I joined the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine in 1987," Blum says, "I was advised to 'get into something more socially acceptable ... like cocaine.' "

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.