The Tension Between Public Healthcare and Personal Health Habits

Does societal responsibility for individual health needs give rise to individual responsibility to maintain health?

The proposed changes in healthcare have consumed a fair portion of media attention over the past few months.  Much of the debate revolves around the provisioning of healthcare to American’s.  But buried deep in the discussions is some talk about preventive care and the role that health maintenance plays in America’s overall healthcare policy.  President Obama’s healthcare policy discussion mentions individual responsibility for preventative care:

“Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that protecting and promoting health and wellness in this nation is a shared responsibility among individuals and families, school systems, employers, the medical and public health workforce, and federal and state and local governments. All parties must do their part, as well as collaborate with one another, to create the conditions and opportunities that will allow and encourage Americans to adopt healthy lifestyles.”[1]

The proposed changes in healthcare represent, to some degree, a movement towards increased public responsibility for the health of individuals.[2] If society shoulders some of the burden of individual healthcare issues, then an individual’s health habits have, in addition to personal health consequences, external repercussions.  This begs the question:  If society takes responsibility for the health of its citizens, do the citizens have a corresponding responsibility to society to maintain their own health?

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The Smoking Optional Room


I recently enjoyed a short getaway with my wife.  We had reserved a room at a hotel and had requested a non-smoking room.  Upon check in the gentleman at the front desk told us that the hotel was very busy.  He informed us that the room they had available for us was a smoking optional room.

This is a fantastic piece of marketing word play.  Unless there is category of rooms in which smoking is required, my understanding is that all smoking rooms are in fact smoking optional. But by adding that one word optional to the label for the room, the image of the room is somewhat transformed.  The term smoking room conjures up images of a room that smells like an ashtray and is littered with tiny burn marks on the furniture.  By contrast, a smoking optional room is a room in which you have options.  The occupant of the smoking optional room has a freedom that the occupant of the non-smoking room does not possess; the freedom to partake in a multitude of delightful tobacco products.

This phraseology, while creative and even a bit cute, is no doubt an attempt to make the room seem more acceptable to non-smokers when no non-smoking rooms are available for their stay.  Perhaps some non-smokers, despite previous convictions to refrain from the habit, are at least compelled to not completely rule out the option of smoking should they choose to pickup the habit during their stay.

After a polite request, and some discussion with the manager on duty, we were placed in a smoking prohibited room.  But I appreciate that we were afforded the option of smoking.