Freedom ain’t free, but now others won’t pay the price

by Ryan Snyder

Starting January 2, 2010, something will happen that, as a child of a tobacco-growing family, I never thought I’d see. I’ll finally be able to come home from a bar with my shirt still smelling like a dryer sheet and I couldn’t be happier about it. Of course, there are those North Carolinians, or simply the reflexively anti-regulation, who believe it is the inalienable right of Tar Heel staters to partake of coffin nails whenever and wherever they darn well please.

I’ve heard just about every argument in opposition to the bill, from the mildly-specious to the downright idiotic, and none of them have come close to shaking my belief that this is the right thing to do. Among them are, “But people go to bars to indulge their vices,” “Oh noez, the government is taking over and I might never have freedom, boo hoo,” and “If people don’t want to be exposed to secondhand smoke, they should get another job.” Of those three, only the latter comes close to the true impetus behind the bill. It’s a public health issue, plain and simple. The owner of a public or private establishment that caters to the public has never had any “rights” when it comes to the safety of its patrons or employees. There are already hundreds of regulations an establishment must obey in order to stay in business. Let’s look at the facts, the majority of which come from a surgeon general’s report that was initially gagged during the Bush III era for being politically inexpedient. It states that “concentrations of many cancercausing and toxic chemicals are higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.” Further, “nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25–30 percent and nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20–30 percent.” Then there’s the catch-all: “[S]cientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.” For every bit of scientific evidence in support of the ban, I alone could proffer at least a dozen anecdotal bits to back it up. Ever been in a crowded bar when some drunken buffoon, waving his/her lit cancer stick around like a sparkler on the Fourth of July, runs into you? I have a couple of times, and I have two round scars on my right arm to prove it. Yet, how does that address the fact that workers can simply get another job, you ask? The same report stated that less than 30 percent of restaurant and bar employees work in smokefree environments. What if more than 30 percent want to work in a smokefree environment? Why should their job mandate daily exposure to hundreds of known carcinogens, particularly when the remedy is that the smoker walks outside to indulge their habit? For most of those workers, there is less choice. People need jobs. But to limit those which pay better than othernon-degreed positions with the stipulation that they must endanger their health on a daily basis is akin to class warfare. The biggest question in my mind is: Why is this happening now? Clearly, it’s a case of tyranny of the minority. The one reason cigarettes haven’t already been banned from these places years ago is the acceptance of cigarettes in our culture, along with a vociferous tobacco lobby. While that lobby has managed to keep their product viable to a degree, even through a wave of anti-smoking legislation in recent years, they are representing an increasingly smaller population segment. Recent surveys indicate that the percentage of US adults who smoke is down to about 18 percent, which is a precipitous decline from the 1960s, when a majority of US adults were smokers. Progress, however, usually involvesbringing some along kicking and screaming. We will still undoubtedlyhear the argument that, if you’re going to ban X, then why not ban Y,also, with Y being something like miniature dachshunds, because a guytripped over his and died after falling down the stairs. Lots of thingsin this world pose hazards, but we as a society make value judgments asto what risks should be tolerated, regulated and banned. People diefrom vehicular-related incidents every day but should we ban cars? Ofcourse not, but we regulate it in any number of ways to try to bringthe associated risks to a tolerable level. There was a report in’90 that indicated a strong inverse relationship between education andsmoking and between income and smoking. There is also a strong positiverelationship between criminal behavior and smoking — a majority ofprison inmates (in prisons where it hasn’t been banned) smoke. Withthat in mind, I (spuriously) conclude that by this time next year, theperson sitting on the barstool next to me is likely to be bettereducated, healthier, have a better job, better breath and be lesslikely to stick a knife between my ribs than is presently the case. I’mno Aldous Huxley, but I’m more than ready for this brave new world.