Smoke get in your eyes?

William F. Buckley
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Posted: May 27, 2002 12:00 AM
Have the long fingernails of the state's smoking laws scratched up your life? There are two federal laws that authorize interventions to prohibit people from smoking. At their arrant worst, in Colorado, you are (theoretically) not allowed to smoke at a campsite. Neither, as a matter of fact, are you allowed to build a fire at a campsite, this last perhaps understandable, inasmuch as campfires can cause forest fires.

But the law seems to know no limit to the ambition to blow smoke away from the face of the land. In New York, a 13-year-old sued, complaining that his visitations with his mother were painful and dangerous because dear old Mom lighted up, both in the car riding with the brat and in the quarters they shared during the visit. We do not know who put the child up to bringing the complaint -- it sounds rather like the American Civil Liberties Union bribing somebody to object to the sight of the Ten Commandments when bicycling in the park. Question: Would the ACLU be on the side of limiting the exposure of the innocent party to smoke? Or on the side of the freedom of the addict to light up?

We asked a veteran legal philosopher to touch down on the question, Is smoking a civil right? His answer (he is given to laconic and derisory talk and is himself a smoker): "That's easy. Your civil right nowadays is for others not to smoke."

Mixed up with the question, Do you have a right to smoke? is another, which is: Do we want a nation of whistle-blowers?

Last week a gentleman came in to where I work. He said that "somebody" had complained about smoke, and he was there on a "random inspection." There are 50 people in the office, here and there, and he traced tobacco to five. Traced is hardly the word to use, since when he came in, no one knew what the gentleman wanted, and the receptionist, affable and relentlessly helpful, might well have asked him what she could do for him while blowing her cigarette smoke out in his general direction.

BANG! -- down came the gavel. This time he would not fine us. But we were now on his hit list, and we would have no warning when next he showed up, perhaps with a Great Dane trained to sniff out the hidden cigarette butt. He would then fine both the corporation and the individual.

Had somebody in the office complained? We don't think so, because we're all good buddies here. Probably it was someone delivering a ham sandwich who, noticing one of our five miscreants taking a puff, called the enforcers. If you tell on somebody who is hiding income from the IRS, and the IRS moves in and successfully prosecutes, the informer is (we are told) slipped a little change. Maybe it is so in the tobacco-detection game, though the practice may differ from city to city, state to state.

And there is no denying that non-smokers also have rights, as anyone would acknowledge who has been caught to leeward of a smoker sitting immediately to one side.

Yes, there are definitely two sides to the question, and they are in severe contention right now in the Province of Nova Scotia, a domestic quarrel especially sad since Nova Scotians, with the possible exception only of New Zealanders, are the nicest human beings on the planet. But they are torn up about a new law that is suggesting that smoke should not be permitted in bars and restaurants until 9 p.m., after which it's caveat eater/drinker.

David Rodenhiser of the Halifax Daily News thinks the anti-smoking law (his language) is the equivalent of "horny teen-age boys" averring that they will "only put it halfway in." He makes the case against permitting any smoke in any public space:

"There is no known safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

  • Each year, 1,650 Nova Scotians die from smoking-related illnesses, including 200 who die from secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke causes more disability, disease and death among employees than any other single hazard in the workplace.

  • "Restaurant workers have a 50 percent higher risk of lung cancer than the general population.

  • "The government spends $170 million a year treating smoking-related diseases, and expects to collect $138.5 million in tobacco taxes in 2002-03."

    Does that wrap it up? Well, no, not really.

    Why couldn't we forbid smoking in the office -- except in one room? Vicki's room, say. She'd hardly object, since she is a smoker.

    But the law doesn't make way for compromises, or adjustments, or extenuations. The law is "a ass, a idiot," said Charles Dickens' Mr. Bumble 160 years ago, and nothing has changed.