Tobacco, Mental Health and Human Rights

ASH Scotland
3 min readAug 15, 2019

Human rights were established to protect fundamental values such as the ability to live, have a family and be free from cruel treatment.

There are various instruments underpinning this: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child to name some. When governments sign these documents they agree to the principles but the contents are not automatically incorporated into national laws, although courts may refer to these instruments in arriving at a judgment.

So what have human rights got to do with smoking tobacco? Many people, especially smokers, would say that surely individuals have the right to smoke! Pro-smoking advocates cite the rights to liberty, self-determination and privacy in support of a ‘right to smoke’. Here at ASH Scotland we give no credence to the “right to smoke” idea. (Read a blog by my colleague John Watson here)

So, from the instruments listed above, human beings have a right to:

Life, health, the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health, liberty, self-determination.

It’s quite easy to figure how tobacco impacts on the first three. 50% of all long-term smokers will die from a smoking-related disease. Smoking affects every organ in the body and has an adverse effects on mental health. Bearing in mind the first two, there is no way that a smoker is going to experience enjoyment of “the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health”!

So what about liberty? A dictionary definition is, “the power or scope to act as one pleases.” However it could be argued that because of the highly addictive nature of nicotine (as addictive as heroin or cocaine), the addict (the smoker) is not entirely free to choose whether to continue smoking or not. The right to self-determination is framed as the right to ‘freely pursue … economic, social and cultural development’. But smoking tobacco is destructive to the individual and to others (second hand smoke and child labour involved in tobacco production for example) and it is difficult to see where this fits in with “social and cultural development”. As far as economic development goes, yes, tobacco companies are highly profitable, but it’s hard to imagine how a smoker living in poverty is going to develop their own or their households economic situation when so much of their income goes on tobacco.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights made the following judgment in respect of tobacco: “Failure to discourage production, marketing and consumption of tobacco constitutes a violation of the obligation to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Increasingly then, ASH Scotland (Action on Smoking and Health) and our sister ASH organizations across the globe, along with other public health advocates/organizations will refer to Human Rights, whether or not they have been enshrined into the laws of a nation, in influencing and arguing for action to deal with the tobacco epidemic and its consequences.

With 1 BILLION people predicted to die from smoking in the 21st century, this is a health emergency.



ASH Scotland

Our vision is that everyone has the right to good health and to live free from the harm and inequality caused by smoking.