Put this in your pipe and (don't) smoke it

Posted: Jan 08, 2006 9:05 AM

The "smoking debate" exhausts me. Anti-smoking activists may oppose smoking on health grounds, but their attempts to stamp out smoking are making our political society sicker. How? I could repeat the "unintended effects" mantra, but maybe we should just call it "second-hand smoke." Smother freedom and democracy coughs up a lung.

On matters of health (and so much else), personal responsibility works best. This entails no small amount of freedom, including the right of individuals to choose their vices as well as their virtues. So the political question becomes not "Is this or that good for me, or you?" but "Where do my rights end and your rights begin?"

Smoking makes this fairly simple issue a little foggy because the exhaust coming out of the mouth and nose of a smoker isn't mere carbon dioxide. It's bothersome, and more poisonous.

The key to resolving this? Property. I may let someone smoke on my property, but you have the right to put up No Smoking signs on yours. It's really not a question of "may people smoke?" but "where may people smoke?"

Trickier on "public property," I grant you, but it does come down to property rights all the same: who owns the property.

Unfortunately, the anti-smoking crusade also crusades against property. Smoking is apparently so bad that the foundation of civilization—the distinction between "mine" and "thine"—must be eroded to prevent people from lighting up.

In city after city, state after state, country after country, the anti-smoking crusade seems to be winning. Anti-smoking laws go into effect, and they usually trump property rights. And liberty. Both the ends hailed and the means chosen blow out the candle of freedom in every locality under attack. The latest? Washington state.

Hookah Rites
Alan McWain, proprietor of the Spar Cafe and Tobacco Merchant in Olympia, Washington, is giving up, selling out. His business is under attack. And not by the politicians in Olympia, Washington's state capital, but by citizens.

Last November, voters made it illegal to smoke in public buildings anywhere in the state. And by "public buildings" they don't mean "government owned"—they mean any building open to the public. Voters overwhelmingly voted for Initiative 901, which went into effect in early December. The law requires all businesses to place No Smoking signs on their entrances, and severely limits locations set aside for employee smoking. Employees who smoke outside, for instance, may not do so within 25 feet of a door, an open window, or a vent.

Now, I'm a strong supporter of citizen-enacted law. But this prohibition is a bad sign, a smoke signal sent up from totalitarian pipe dreams. It's one thing to prohibit smoking in government buildings that citizens must access. Quite appropriate for a democratic vote, no? But for private businesses? Most of my anti-smoking friends simply avoid places like taverns that have excessive smoke. I know people who walk out of restaurants that have even a faint residue of cigarette odor. Isn't this enough?

Ask me, I answer Yes. Ask an anti-smoking zealot, you'll more likely get a resounding No.

This totalist approach spells death for Mr. McWain's smoke shop. He's had to close his cigar lounge, just as did the hookah lounge nearby. What's a hookah? It's an ancient smoking device that filters and cools the tobacco smoke with water. It also adds molasses and other ingredients (usually fruit flavors) to the tobacco mix—a smokers' smorgasbord.

Hookah cafes are all the rage among the younger folk. New York has 'em, and though technically illegal there, there have been no citations, no arrests. Yet. Washington D.C. has gobs of them, too, I'm told.

Hookah usage tends to be more social than other forms of tobacco smoking. Is this good? I'm no hypochondriac, but I have to say I blanch, a little, when I see people sharing the same large metal water pipe. But that's their business, not mine. Lips that touch hookahs that touch other lips won't touch mine. (This is an easy resolution: my wife smokes cigarettes; if I had any other rule she'd get awfully suspicious.) I worry about normal contagion more than I fear second-hand smoke.

Experts amongst the anti-smoking crowd claim that hookah use is not any safer than other forms of smoking. Most hookah users, however, point out that they smoke less often than cigarette smokers. Perhaps that won't be the case were hookah cafes to become more common.

But that won't happen if anti-smoking activists have their way. They obviously know about the rise of hookah smoking. My guess is that's why the Washington activists responsible for Initiative 901 didn't provide an exemption—or even for McWain's less outre smoke shop. The voters would likely have voted for such exemptions. The anti-smoking folk don't want to give smokers an inch . . . of pipe. Or freedom.

"The general public doesn't appreciate my type of business," McWain said, "and my type of business caters to smokers. If you can't go to a smoke shop to smoke, where the hell can you go?"

Not New Zealand
The anti-smoking crusade is not limited to North America and Europe. The Kiwi government has made it illegal to smoke in bars in New Zealand. For many people, bars and taverns are where you go to relax, to both drink and smoke. So this new law has had some interesting consequences.

Like civil disobedience.

In Washington state some hookah users and cafe owners have staged a few smoke-ins. In New York, the hookah users blithely puff along, regardless of the laws. But in New Zealand, smokers and drinkers have gone that extra step: they are setting up unlicensed bars in their own garages.

Some of these bars are not really small businesses, but more like community centers. It's strictly BYOB in these places. The New Zealand smoking ban doesn't include private homes, so the garage bar movement seems impeccably legal as well as ethical and convivial.

But other garage bars provide full services, you might say, selling alcohol as well as allowing smoking. The first such full-service garage bar to appear in Christchurch was busted not long ago, and the proprietors face a fine of up to 20,000 New Zealand dollars. Yes, that's real money.

Protest outlawry is not just a garage bar trend. The leaders of the WIN Party, a political party opposing the smoking ban, face prosecution for not enforcing the ban in their legit establishments.

The whole issue has not increased civility or general good-feeling. The decreased profits in the hospitality industry are turning owners of small businesses against their competition, the garage bars. Like most such legislation, the smoking ban has made politics bitter and ugly.

That's a consequence of not keeping government limited. When government sticks to its basic tasks like protecting the "mine" from the "thine" (and "thine" from "mine"), civility and good manners and balanced emotions can rule. But set government to control every aspect of our lives—even for our own good—and chaos and conflict reign. That's not democracy, which works only when each citizen can feel safe within a rule of law, his (and her) property defended.

So what is this chaos, this system of increased conflict for the sake of "health"?

It's civilization going—you guessed it—up in smoke.