When I was younger, Mom was complaining about some new onerous inconvenience they were putting on non-smokers and how eventually they were just going to ban it altogether. I didn’t believe her at the time and to some extent I still don’t. But my skepticism was outsized and she was more right than I knew. The torrent of anti-smoking legislation in the past decade has made me wonder where, precisely, this is all leading. Will Saletan has done a fantastic job of chronicling how much more confident the anti-smoking forces have become in terms of citing smaller and smaller inconveniences as unacceptable and how much ground smokers have lost in trying to convince people that their right to partake in their vices, at some point in the conversation, should be taken into consideration.
With each battle they’ve lost, the other side has gained confidence. After each battle, the non-smoking majority realizes how much more pleasant things are when they aren’t forced to endure second-hand smoke. And smokers themselves often realize the virtues of these regs that allow them to go places with non-smokers that they couldn’t go before. The smoking ban on restaurants and bars has been an incredible success. My friend Web excepted, I don’t know anyone that supported the ban regretting having done so and I know a lot of people (including myself) who opposed it have reconsidered. Add to this a lot of people with the resources and discipline to quit have done so, culling a portion of the most capable and privileged and plugged in from the ranks of the smokers. As smoking becomes considered to be the province of the poor, lazy, hedonistic, and disgusting, the sentiment to push it further and further away from non-smokers becomes less and less objectionable to a majority of the population. Perhaps eventually to the point of vindicating Mom and banning it altogether. Or maybe not.
As Saletan points out, we’re starting to cross a threshold where any inconvenience at all to the non-smoker is sufficient grounds to legislate against the “right to smoke” in some place or under some circumstance. You have non-smoking sections, but smoke drifts. You have no smoking in indoor restaurants, but if non-smokers want to eat on the patio they still have to breathe the air. You push smokers away from the door and they’re still on the sidewalk. You push them away from the sidewalk, and they’re supposed to go… where? Their cars? You can smell cigarette smoke from neighboring vehicles and of course people toss their butts out the window and pollute. Their house? Well, if they smoke indoors they are a hazard to their children and if they smoke outdoors people next door can smell it. It really won’t be long before neighborhoods start associating smoking with lower property values and prevent you from smoking outdoors at all. And anybody smoking anywhere has the potential of increasing health care costs.
We’re further along in all of this than you might think. I absolutely can’t smoke in our rented house. I’m not supposed to smoke on the premises. Sidewalks and parks are not yet prohibited in Cascadia, but it’s happening in more and more places. Convenience stores where you buy the cigarettes don’t appreciate loiters (though if you’re white and/or wearing work clothes, they probably won’t say anything. If you own your own home and don’t have children
When the threshold is that no inconvenience or hardship to non-smokers is acceptable at all, then smoking has to be prohibited outright. The further along we get on this path, the more respect I have for people that just come out and say that. Instead, it sort of becomes this disingenuous conversation that is always prefaced about “While freedom is important…” and ends with “… if somebody else’s freedom is adversely affecting others, it’s taking away their freedom.” While for some anti-smoking arguments it makes a degree of sense, if you applied the more recent arguments to food peanuts and peanut oil would be contraband.
I think that the issue here is that American’s have a great appetite for nanny-statism, but they don’t like that they do. So they end up framing it in some way that they can say that it’s not about telling other people what to do. For many this probably is the case, but for those that speak the loudest in the anti-smoking movement, it often isn’t. And at the rate we’re moving, we’re reaching the point where cigarettes will be legal to buy but not legal to smoke for anyone that isn’t a childless homeowner on their own private lot (or knows somebody of the same).
And maybe the would be okay. Frankly, the anti-statism argument against smoking has lost a lot of resonance with me. Smoking simply isn’t like other bad habits in that it literally flies (okay, drifts) right in the face of those that find it unpleasant or are actively harmed by it. It is a lifestyle choice that most who make it want to unmake it. And it is a choice that, when made, is extraordinarily difficult to unmake. Its contribution to culture and society is negligible. Unlike alcohol and unhealthy foods, it is abused by almost everyone that partakes. When used as directed, cigarettes kill. And on and on. You would be surprised how many people I knew on the smokers’ deck at Monmark-Soyokaze who would agree with the proposition that the stuff should be banned. And if I thought our government could pull it off, I’d say the same.
The problem with banning cigarettes is quite simply that we can’t. If we could just get them out of convenience stores we would be making extraordinary progress, but we can’t even do that. We can’t ban cigarettes because people are just not quite comfortable with their nanny-state instincts to sign on. And with both cigarettes and convenience store sales of the same, you have some pretty powerful lobbies against it. And I suppose that some of the disingenuous behavior of the anti-smokers is on the basis that it’s pointless to lobby for the impossible whine you can chip away at it piece by possible piece.
The problem with the Externality-Reduction Approach (a good a name as any), though, is that if you’re fighting it on all battles all the time and you miss out on compromises that could benefit both smokers and non-smokers in living amicably. Even if you have no respect for what the smokers are doing to their own bodies, having respect for smokers can help create a compromise that will ultimately benefit non-smokers.
For instance, if you disregard smokers so much so that you give them unrealistic aims and then view their complaints as “their problem”, you encourage people to disregard the rules altogether. For instance, telling people not to smoke within 30 feet of a main entrance to a public building is quite reasonable. Extending this to all entrances, however, can lead to pushing them out into the scorching sun or rain. Even if you feel that smokers, being as evil as they are, deserve to face the elements, what will happen instead is that they will simply ignore the 30ft rule. If enough of them ignore it, it becomes impossible to enforce it. And if they’re going to break the rule, they might as well smoke five feet from the door.
Alternately, if you require employers that allow smoking on the premises to set up a covered smoking area 30 feet away from any entrance, smokers would be happy to abide by that. My ex-boss Calvin (who belonged to a religion that abhored smoking) set up a little canopy outside the workshop and in my year-and-a-half there, I never saw anybody smoke near any door. Even when the canopy was leaking! You may think to yourself that smokers do not deserve such accommodations, but it was the non-smokers that ultimately benefited.
The ban on smoking in restaurants and bars has proven to be popular, but there may have been a better way of going about it. Until they successfully ban smoking on sidewalks or in commercial districts, one thing the smoking ban has done is push smokers outside the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. Before people could avoid cigarette smoke by not going into establishments that allowed smoking. Now they can’t at all because they have to pass by lines of smokers outside the front door (where, even if there is a 30ft rule, it is ignored because there is no obvious place for them to go). A better approach may have been licensing and regulation. Limit the number of establishments that can allow smoking inside, regulate their HVAC, and disallow it elsewhere. Smokers will gravitate toward and inside establishments that allow smoking and will be off the streets. In the current environment, if smokers have the option of being out of the way, they would love to be so.
In part because smokers fought even reasonable accommodations for non-smokers, there are reasons that non-smokers and anti-smokers view smokers as the enemy. But I think that the tide has turned to such a degree that the animosity is going to cause more harm than good. People who are allowed to buy cigarettes but are not allowed to actually smoke them anywhere will smoke them somewhere. And the more the rules are tilted against smokers, the less they will abide by them. And it doesn’t stop them from being the statists that they swear they are not.