Wednesday, August 31, 2005

You must realize, Smoke gets in your eyes.

While taking a leisurely lunchtime walk through the park yesterday, I was struck by another observation about the current cigarette imbroglio. Actually, I was almost struck by stray ash but the observation was a direct hit: while smoking is now prohibited anywhere on the grounds of local hospitals it apparently is still permitted in ambulances, for it was a shotgun-riding EMT who was flicking her way through the park on a mild and overcast day who thoughtfully discarded ash in my path. Although I can't say for sure, I would wager that her spent butt is now part of the park's well-kept landscape. Where have you gone Norman Rockwell?

Now that legislation has passed allowing municipalities to enact more stringent restrictions on smoking, expect this to be a hot-button issue for some time to come. The media have already come down pretty hard in favor of across-the-board bans in businesses, including restaurants, bars, and bowling alleys. They seem to be reflecting prevailing public opinion with their stance, although that opinion is far from unanimous and the dissenters have on their side the city's top dog.

If the mayor's vision for Springfield includes dense smog in local establishments, then he might want to start mounting a defense lest people believe that he is merely looking out for the best interests of his tavern-owning brother.

Being as that the all-important issues of health and public well-being, along with the majority opinion, favor the other side, he might be served best by creating a diversion. He could conjure up a straw man who would descend upon the city under the guise of an oppressive and dictatorial government. Today it would ban smoking at TGIFriday's, but tomorrow will insist on making wine selections at Indigo and imposing fines for chewing with your mouth open at Hardee's (not a bad idea, really.) The problem with creating an image of a straw man setting down a slippery slope is that it bursts into flames with the first carelessly discarded butt.

Although he was addressing a different issue, George Will combated this line of argument quite well:

Life, however, is lived on a slippery slope: Taxation could become confiscation; police could become gestapos. But the benefits from taxation and police make us willing to wager that our judgment can stop slides down dangerous slopes.

And so we too can feel safe that banning cigarettes in restaurants probably won't result in infringements on the freedoms of the press, as was suggested in a letter-to-the-editor today.

A more persuasive argument, at least as it plays to my pseudo-libertarian leanings, is that in matters of business, the market should determine the action. As such, people are free to frequent smoke-free establishments while boycotting those brimming in carcinogens. If enough consumers go this route, businesses will soon follow with self-imposed restrictions. Unfortunately, this doesn't take into account the people who work in these environments (admittedly not against their will) nor is the reasoning consistent with that that has led to current public health regulations with which few would argue, such as the limit on the number of cockroaches that can reside in food preparation areas.

Even still, I can't help picturing some weather-worn corner tavern where the owner, bartender, and all of the regulars are smokers. Why shouldn't they be allowed to light up, and the fact is, ban or no ban, they probably will.

Whatever type of ban is passed in the city, I would think that enforcement would come as the result of routine health inspections and complaints from patrons. The latter is much more likely to happen at restaurants than at bars, especially those where such persnicketiness would be met with the business end of a broken Bud bottle.

The government has been unable to stamp out illegal payouts on video poker games and so it's unlikely that they will be able to fully clear the air in every saloon, tavern, and thirst parlor. But since we can't have anyone operating above the law either, I propose an opt-out policy for those places that want to maintain their noxious appeal. Operating a cancer incubator would come at a price, however, in the form of a new tax, the proceeds of which could be directed towards the new medical district or be used to prop up a sagging dry-cleaning industry once lunch at D'Arcy's no longer requires de-fumigation of one's attire (In fairness, I haven't been to the new location so maybe the problem isn't as bad now.)

As much as I detest the foul air of cigarette smoke, I do have friends who smoke and this fact tempers an all-out assault on this issue from my direction. I wish that they would quit, for their own good, and maybe increasing restrictions on where they can light up will help them make that decision. Still, they should have some place where they can gather and enjoy a beer and a smoke with like-minded folks; they just shouldn't be allowed to do it any place.

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