Puff, Puff, Pass

Suck It

I hate the new smoking ban—and I don’t even smoke.

By Chuck Thompson May 19, 2009 Published in the November 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: David Senior

MAYBE YOU recall those scared-straight pictures from elementary school of two lungs side by side on a lab tray: on the left, a moist, pink, happy loaf of healthy tissue; on the right, a shriveled, black, igneous lump. Such public service messages traumatized me as a child; so did watching a three-pack-a-day uncle die of emphysema. I pretty much believe everything I’ve ever heard about the danger of cigarettes; I don’t smoke, and I never will. None of which has anything to do with (or should have anything to do with) someone else’s right to light up.

For many righteous Portlanders, January 1, the day the statewide smoking ban in bars takes effect, will mark the beginning of a long-awaited era during which Oregonians will be free to punish their livers without blackening their lungs. For me the day will represent merely another installment in the gradual erosion of individual liberties in a town that once cared more about personal freedoms than cowering groupthink.

Passed last year by an 18-to-12 vote in the Oregon Senate, the smoking ban has been cannily positioned by crusaders as a public health issue when, to me, 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 has been legal since the day the first trees were clear-cut from the banks of the Willamette, the smoking ban is foremost a violation of individual rights. 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.

Perhaps more startling than Portland’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 nonsmoking bars, won’t savvy business owners start opening nonsmoking bars? Oh, wait—they already have. According to Barflymag.com, a font of local boozehound info, 222 Portland bars already ban smoking, and not just to get ahead of the law. Reacting to its customer base, Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub, downtown, went nonsmoking in 2000, four years before Ireland disgraced itself with a ban. And Cactus Jack’s, in Southwest Portland, went smoke-free earlier this year. “The smartest decision I ever made,” says owner Jack Stanley.

“In a small place, one person smoking can affect everyone’s experience.”I have no problem with bar owners who want to ban smoking in their own places. I don’t go to vegan restaurants—the food tastes like topsoil—but I’m glad I live in a society where my vegan sisters can get their fixes in peace.

The larger issue is where smoking bans will lead. Dismiss my hysterics if you must, but don’t think that the zealots behind this will stop with your right to do your Keith Richards impression in public. The puritan scolds who’ve managed to crush out tobacco in bars (they pulled the same trick with alcohol in the 1920s) are now pushing for smoking bans in cars. That’s the intent, anyway, of Washington state representative Shay Schual-Berke, who earlier this year sponsored a bill that would make it illegal in the Evergreen State for drivers or passengers to light up if there’s anyone under 18 in the car. Schual-Berke’s justification, quoted in the Oregonian, revealed how some lawmakers feign concern about humanity to mask the fact that other people’s behavior simply drives them crazy—and that they feel they have the right to legislate personal habits: “I cannot stand when I drive around and I see people smoking and I watch their children in the backseat choking,” Schual-Berke said.

If like-minded 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 alcohol-related fatalities (1,227 in Oregon between 2000 and 2006) a lot faster than a smoking ban would curtail deaths from secondhand smoke. While we’re at it, why not also ban cars?

The other Trojan horse is the laughable justification of “workers’ 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.”

Antismoking nags work the “employee health” mantra the way Bushies chant, “The surge is working!” and Beavers basketball fans keep telling themselves this is the year they’ll regain respectability. But here’s the thing about working in a bar—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. I hauled nets, cleared longlines, gutted fish, and made a buttload of cash. 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—and after two seasons I decided I’d never go back. I began applying for vastly less hazardous (though less lucrative) work.

Ask around for the real reason so many Portlanders 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 that 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 that natural consequence of leaving one’s home.”

I’m going to miss the old, grimy atmosphere. I’ll miss our shared history. Bogey wouldn’t have been Bogey without the coffin nails. And the bars near my Southeast home won’t be as fun when half the working-class regulars—who’ll be most affected by this antismoking jihad—have to huddle in the rain just to get 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 souls.

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