Drag

With the smoking ban in Oregon set to take effect in less than a week, I figure I might as well post one last shot across the bow of the USS Pussification. The following essay appeared in extremely shortened form in Esquire last summer, and in a length closer to this one in last November’s issue of Portland Monthly magazine.

DRAG

I don’t smoke. Never have. Never will. In addition to the frightening array of public-service messages—Remember those scared-straight pictures from elementary school, a pink lung and piece of charcoal side by side on lab trays?—I was traumatized as a child watching a three-pack-a-day uncle die of emphysema. I pretty much believe everything I’ve ever heard about the dangers of cigarettes. None of which has anything to do—or should have anything to do—with someone else’s right to light up in places where drinking, gambling, and other adult activities are sanctioned events.

For many righteous Portlanders, January 1, 2009, the day the statewide smoking ban in bars goes into effect, will mark the beginning of a long-awaited era when Oregonians will be free to punish their livers in healthy, smoke-free environments. For others the day will represent merely another installment in the gradual erosion of individual liberties, and the further pacification of a town that once cared more about personal freedoms than cowering groupthink and the kind of hyper-cautious paranoia once found only in crowds of insurance adjustors and kindergarten teachers.

Smoking bans across the world, of course, have been cannily positioned by crusaders as a public health issue. In reality, smoking bans in bars have as much to do with public health as the Clear Skies initiative has to do with clean air and credible environmental oversight. By legislating away a custom that’s been legal since the day the American Revolution was planned between swigs and puffs in musty places like Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern, the smoking ban is foremost an individual rights issue. Worse, it’s yet another way to dispatch the notion of personal responsibility by imposing the morality of an intolerant majority upon a presumably subversive minority.

As startling as the public’s acquiescence to government mollycoddling, is the fact that social conservatives have made smoking bans an issue at all. Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing our vaunted “free market” is supposed to sort out? If enough patrons want non-smoking bars, won’t savvy business owners start opening non-smoking bars? Oh, wait, they already do. According to barflymag.com, font of local boozehound info, 218 bars in Portland are already smoke-free. And not just in anticipation of the pending ban. Reacting to its customer base, Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub went non-smoking in 2000, four years before Ireland disgraced itself with a ban.

“The smartest decision I ever made,” says Jack Stanley, owner of Cactus Jack’s Tex-Mex Cafe, about going smoke-free earlier this year. “In a small place, one person smoking can affect everyone’s experience.”

I like Cactus Jack’s and I’ve got no problem with bar owners who want to ban smoking in their own places. I don’t go to vegan restaurants because I think the food tastes like topsoil, but I’m glad I live in a free society with a reactive economy where my vegan sisters can get their fixes in peace.

The larger issue here is what smoking bans will lead to. Laugh at the hysterics, but don’t think that the elimination of personal choice stops with the right to do your Keith Richards impression in public. The puritan scolds who’ve managed to crush out tobacco in bars pulled the same trick with alcohol in the 1920s—now they’re pushing for smoking bans in cars. That’s the intent, anyway, of Washington representative Shay Schual-Berke, who earlier this year sponsored a bill that would make it illegal for drivers or passengers to light up with anyone under eighteen in the car. Schual-Berke’s justification for the law, quoted in The Oregonian, was telling of those who feign concern for humanity by way of masking the fact that the way other people conduct their lives just drives them crazy: “I cannot stand when I drive around and I see people smoking and I watch their children in the back seat choking,” said Schaul-Berke.

If likeminded Little Napoleons are so concerned with the social cost of what others are doing in cars and bars, why not just ban alcohol? That’d eliminate drunk-driving fatalities a lot faster than it would those from secondhand smoke. Hell, it’d cut down on the alcohol-related diseases and crimes that cost society hundreds of millions each year. While we’re at it, why not ban cars? But, of course, following their own “public good” logic would mean our adult hall monitors would have to give up all their completely safe and environmentally friendly cars. Easier to force someone else to give up smoking.

The other Trojan horse in which anti-smoking zealots have marched through the gates of government is the laughable justification of “worker’s health.” As Dana Kaye of the American Lung Association of Oregon told the Associated Press last summer: “This policy change protects the health of people who right now have to work around cigarette smoke.”

Anti-cigarette nags work the “employee health” mantra the same way brain-dead Bushies chant “The surge is working!”; as though simply repeating the phrase often enough will make it true. But here’s the thing about working in a bar—despite Kaye’s disingenuousness, no one has to do it.

I grew up in Southeast Alaska and like a lot of kids ended up crewing on small fishing boats. For parts of two summers I hauled nets, cleared longlines, gutted fish, and made a buttload of cash. However, as commercial fishing was the hardest and most dangerous work I’d ever done—a street in my hometown is named after a Little League teammate who fell off the back of a fishing boat in junior high and was never seen again—I decided after two seasons that I never wanted to do it again. I began applying for less lucrative though vastly less hazardous work.

Ask around for the real reason so many Oregonians are looking forward to the smoking ban and you’ll get some iteration of the simpler truth. As Stanley says, “One hundred percent, this is because people don’t like smelling like an ashtray when they get home.”

I can relate. I don’t like it, either. The difference is when I don’t want to reek up my church jeans, my solution isn’t to infringe upon someone else’s rights. I do what rational people used to do in this country. I avoid places where cigarettes are smoked. As Fran Lebowitz pointed out in her essay, “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes … Shut Them,” dealing with “the unpleasant personal habits of others … is what ‘public’ means. … Being offended is the natural consequence of leaving one’s home.” If you don’t like rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi, drink in your living room. Or go one of the 200 or so smoke-free bars in town.

Besides, I’m going to miss the old, grimy atmosphere. I’ll miss our history together. This country was founded on the tobacco trade. Bogey wouldn’t have been Bogey without the coffin nails. And bars just won’t be as fun when half the working-class regulars—the real target of this anti-smoking jihad—have to bail out mid-argument to huddle in the rain just to get in a relaxing huff. By kowtowing to yet another milepost on the road to American pussification we might be saving our lungs, but we’re killing our hearts.

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