If you're a smoker, you may or may not have adjusted to the fact that you can't legally eat and smoke at the same time, at least not in a restaurant. You can still smoke in some other places, but never in a restaurant.

But suppose you were confined to a restaurant 24 hours a day, against your will?

In that case, your situation would be comparable to the situation of involuntary patients in New Jersey's state psychiatric hospitals, who are no longer allowed outdoor smoking breaks.

On the surface, it might seem sensible for hospitals to ban smoking. They are, after all, places where people go to get well, and isn't it pretty clear that smoking does the opposite? However, there are significant differences between a psychiatric hospital and a general hospital. Patients frequently stay in psychiatric hospitals for many months, or even years. Moreover, most of them are there involuntarily. They are also often in pretty much the same physical shape as people outside the hospital, unlike patients in a general hospital.

It's still legal for adults to smoke, at least in most places. What restrictions do exist, such as bans on smoking in restaurants and other public indoor locations, are to protect others from "secondhand" smoke. Similarly, when the psychiatric hospitals did permit smoking, they required patients to take smoking breaks outdoors to protect non-smoking patients. But for the most part, New Jersey has no restrictions intended to protect the health of adult smokers themselves.

It is no surprise that many people develop the habit of smoking. It is encouraged by advertising, on which tobacco companies spend heavily. It is also no surprise that smokers tend not to stop smoking; there is plenty of information to show that smoking is (to say the least) a difficult habit to break. However, this has not led to making it illegal. On the contrary, New Jersey has recognized the right of people to smoke, by enacting a statute that prohibits employers from discriminating against smokers. In addition, the state has taken advantage of the smoking habit to add to its treasury, at the rate of $2.70 per pack, or 13½ cents per cigarette.

The state does not actively encourage smoking, but it has validated it to some degree by protecting smokers' employment rights and deriving revenue from it. Yet smokers who suddenly find themselves involuntarily confined to a state psychiatric hospital, which the law allows for up to 20 days before they even receive a court hearing, are deprived of what may be their most effective way of reducing stress.

If smoking were legally prohibited entirely, no one who had complied with the law would face that problem. But since it is not, psychiatric hospitals should find a way to accommodate smokers, especially those whom they confine against their will.

David B. Harris, of Fanwood, Union County, is a public-interest lawyer who has appeared in court on behalf of many patients in state psychiatric hospitals.