Friday, June 27, 2008

(Not) Smoking in Pennsylvania

(News-Herald, June 26) I admit to having some mixed feelings about the Commonwealth’s new smoking ban.

For one thing, I’m not sure about the actual nuts and bolts of the law. As near as I can tell, the law will ban smoking in all public places except those that are protected by really good lobbyists. Perhaps there’s a bit more logic behind it than that.

I don’t much care for smoking. I’ve never been a smoker. I once attempted to smoke a cigar driving back from New Stanton in a Joy company car well past midnight on the theory that it might keep me awake. It would have been just as effective to slam my head in the car door while driving, but probably more dangerous.

My grandmother was a smoker; to this day, certain aromas of stale cigarette smoke take me right back to younger days in her home. In the days when I played late-night jobs with a local dance band, I would often come home smelling like my grandmother’s car.

Smoking is indefensible. There isn’t any good argument in favor of it, no possible benefit to be derived from it. I’m not really sure how tobacco executives live with themselves. People simply shouldn’t smoke; it’s a stupid habit.

That said, I don’t believe that because something is stupid, the government should necessarily be prohibiting it. Our country is largely founded on the rights of people to do stupid things.

Sen. Mary Jo White has taken a lot of heat for being one of the few legislators to vote against this. Some commentators suggested that her vote proves that she’s in favor of cancer and toxic gases. I don’t buy the idea that if you are opposed to something, you must favor of a law against it. You may not like looking at ugly people, but that doesn’t mean the government should make them wear bags over their heads.

This particular incursion by the Nanny State owes a lot to some general hysteria about second-hand smoke. The discussion of THAT research doesn’t so much highlight the dangers of second-hand smoke as it serves as yet another reminder that many Americans don’t understand science very well.

The research about second-hand smoke consists largely of recrunching numbers from a variety of health studies. It’s a complex process, the kind of problem that’s easier to solve if you start out knowing what conclusion you want to reach. At best, we can say there has been disagreement about how solid those conclusions are.

As often is the case, the loudest voices aren’t very helpful. On one hand, we have the tobacco companies pooh-poohing the whole issue, but these are the same guys who have insisted for decades that smoking makes you healthy, well-adjusted, and irresistibly sexy. On the other hand, we have anti-smoking zealots who insist that just ten minutes of exposure to second-hand smoke will harden your arteries, scramble your dna, and raise your blood-pressure until your head explodes; some reports conclude that second-hand smoke is more dangerous than being an actual smoker.

What do we know for sure? Many people hate cigarette smoke (fond memories of my grandmother aside, I’m one of them) and they wish smokers would just quit. But they don’t want to make a scene asking someone to put it out, so they’ll have the gummint do it.

I look forward to the enforcement side of these regulations—will we hire special smoking police, or do our current officers get one more duty? What will we do with habitual repeat offenders?

As I said, mixed feelings. Smoking is bad. It harms people. It makes things stink. Health problems suck up a ton of money and productivity. Second-hand smoke may not be instantly lethal, but it probably doesn’t do anybody any good. Smoking mostly harms our country.

But. Ditto for teen pregnancy, alcohol, bad driving, fatty food, lack of exercise, stupid tv shows, politicians who lie to win elections, old men in ugly shorts, rudeness, plastic packaging, bad art, toxic household cleansers, overzealous political action groups, and spandex clothing on overweight people. How many of these really cry out for the government to step in and pass some more laws?

I won’t miss the smoking in some (more) public places. My life will be marginally more pleasant without it. But every time the Nanny State passes one of these laws, I can’t help thinking that it’s one more limit for us, and one less limit for them.



Anonymous said...

Tobacco is the best antidpressant known to man and therefore the world's most valuable drug. Its benefits are enjoyed by over a billion people.

The Tobacco war could reach a truce by requiring ventiation instead of bans, but Big Pharma wants bans and has enough wealth to bribe every politician in the world.

Our only hope is an honest judiciary and I'm not holding my breath.

Dittman said...

But alcohol (which I think is the clearest analogy) is severely restricted as to where, when, who, and how it can be enjoyed (terribly parallelism there, but you get the point). This law, as I understand it, exempts a ton of places, and bans it, mostly, in places where the general public would be. Selfishly, I'm really going to enjoy being able to go into restaurants and spend my money - I like(d) Leo's downtown but haven't been there in five years, ditto for Martinos, and I enjoy a drink now and then, but aside from one meeting at Fox Tales, I haven't been in one for about four years - all because of smoking. Senator White herself told me in a letter that she doesn't go out to eat as much as she would like because of the smoke, so clearly I'm not alone.
Smokers are demographically, low wage earners, so I doubt that this dramatic "Oh my God we're going to have to close" scenario will come to pass.
As far as the other commenter goes, ventilation is a joke. Too expensive for businesses and not very effective - I would however be all behind a tax rebate instead of a ban - your business goes non-smoking, you don't pay taxes for the first five years.
Finally, I'm fascinated by the idea of smoking as being a holistic alternative to prozac and big pharma being behind the ban. It's probably true; all the smokers I know are so happy. . .oops, I'll have to end here. I need to straighten my tinfoil hat.

Peter A. Greene said...

I wonder how big tobacco ever missed the opportunity to promote smoking as the wonder drug, bringing joy and happiness to all. Clearly a missed marketing opportunity.

I agree that alcohol is a similar issue, though in some ways a simpler one since we don't have any compelling studies about the effects of second-hand alcohol fumes (just the effects of second-hand drinkers).

And I'm sorry that you haven't been in Leo's in five years-- it's been a couple of years now since the last time I saw anyone smoke in there. Like many restaurants (EatNSnarf is another), they recognized the market value of non-smoking environment.

Dittman said...

I overspoke a bit - Leo's, to their credit, is partially smoke-free - although I can never remember if it's smoking at lunch and not at dinner or vice-versa. I'm sure that if jerks like me called they would tell us when it was safe for our lungs to drop by.

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