Friday, April 27, 2012

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Ire

Is cigarette smoking a legal adult right that should be protected (even if somewhat limited) or an outright public health hazard that should be banned as far as the law allows (and preferably criminalized)?  The answer seems to depend on whether or not you smoke and where you live.

For example, in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to turn America’s most sophisticated city into a Disneyland of smoke-free, fat-free, sugar-free, noise-free and porn-free purity, he proposed a new bill last Wednesday that would require residential buildings to adopt and post written smoking policies that would clearly state whether smoking is allowed in apartment building courtyards, balconies, lobbies, laundry rooms, and apartments. 

According to major media news sources, the bill was prompted by complaints from city residents.  “Fifty percent of non-smoking New Yorkers say right now they’re being exposed to second-hand smoke in their apartments and about 2,000 of them have contacted 311 [the city’s non-emergency help hotline] in just the last year complaining about that,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the city health commissioner.  None of my neighbors have ever complained about smoke wafting from my apartment into theirs.  If they did, I would buy air purifiers for myself and them in an effort to solve the problem.  But this reasonable compromise would not be enough for this mayor.

The famously anti-smoking Bloomberg explained that this was not a proposal to ban smoking in apartments, but rather, to provide information to prospective tenants – like having restaurants include calorie counts on their menus.  “[It] seems to be something that a lot of people want. …Before you rent an apartment you would know whether or not other people in a building are smoking,” he said.

In 2003, the Mayor successfully banned smoking in restaurants and bars (it had already long been banned in all office and public buildings).  In 2011, he managed to include bans in outdoor public spaces, including pedestrian plazas, sidewalk cafes, and all parks and beaches.

Conversely, last Thursday, West Virginia US Senate candidate, John Raese (R), equated a newly-instituted Monongalia County indoor smoking ban with Hitler forcing Jews to wear yellow Stars of David during The Holocaust – a ludicrous comparison I fail to comprehend.  But West Virginia is a leading tobacco-growing state and has been among the last in the nation to impose smoking restrictions.  So, being a Republican, I guess Raese felt obliged to say something… inflammatory.

Those who oppose smoking view it exclusively as an unhealthy habit that they should not have to tolerate (ever, anywhere) let alone “pay for” with higher health insurance costs (a fact that is not accurate, but let me not digress).  Non-smokers never see smoking as a personal legal rights issue, or a matter of taxation without representation and couldn’t care less about these factors.  For the record, in NYC, the average price of a pack of cigarettes is $15, consisting largely of federal and state taxes, as well as one of the highest city cigarette tax rates in the country.

On the other hand, smokers, most of whom do not challenge the fact that direct smoking is unhealthy, still defend our right to engage in a legal adult practice we enjoy.  We have good, documented reason to challenge the scientific data about second-hand smoke; we resent the imposition of punitive taxes; and we view smoking bans in outdoor spaces and/or, potentially, our own homes, as an outrageous violation of our personal rights, freedom and privacy, as well as a diminishment of our quality of life.  That this is happening in a city where the air pollution is so bad it results in everyone inhaling the equivalent of a pack-a-day’s worth of cigarettes, makes Bloomberg’s anti-smoking crusade more than preposterous.

Since buying cigarettes in New York (my hometown) has become financially impossible, a growing black market in cigarettes has sprung up all over town, especially in poorer neighborhoods.  Cartons are “falling off of trucks” in massive numbers, and, for the first time in decades, “loosies” (individual cigarettes) are selling like crazy in smoke shops and bodegas.

I prefer to make my own cigarettes from inexpensive supplies I order (legally) from out-of-state and which are delivered by a private carrier, not the US Postal Service.  FYI, anti-smoking lawmakers in some states – in concert with a strange bedfellow, the tobacco lobby – are trying to make such purchases illegal.  For government, out-of-state purchases represent circumvention of astronomical taxes; and for tobacco companies, they reduce profits.  Notice that “rights” don’t even enter the picture.

My parents were smokers.  I’ve been a smoker since I was 14.  I’m 60 now.  Smoking is one of my greatest pleasures and significantly reduces both my stress and loneliness.  Non-smokers don’t understand, or care, that for many of us, cigarettes are a companion, and the “ritual” of smoking is an integral part of our daily routines and specific activities.  I can’t write or talk on the phone or satisfyingly end a meal without smoking.

I make every effort to be a considerate smoker.  It no longer occurs to me to smoke in someone else’s car or home or other personal space; I don’t even ask permission anymore.  I never smoke around anyone’s children.  I always carry (and use) a travel ashtray so as not to further litter the trash-filled streets with ashes and butts.  And I move away from bus and theater queues and the like, so as not to disturb others.  Nonetheless, my mere existence is an annoyance to non-smokers, a fact they make clear with frequent dirty looks in my direction.

The battle between freedom to and freedom from is as old as democracy itself, and applies to many more things than smoking.  Making democracy work is a difficult, complicated thing, whatever the issue.  But America is increasingly becoming a zero-tolerance country for everyone about anything they personally dislike.  Tolerance, like compromise, has become a dirty word in both politics and community life.  We see this in the financial assaults on the elderly and the poor, the never-the-twain-shall-meet endless debate about abortion, the treatment of obese people, and the opposition to gay marriage.  Society has made these exclusively into moral, health and financial issues.  Like I said, “rights” don’t even enter the picture.  And in many instances, neither do facts.

There is a dirth of kindness, balance, and common sense afoot, not to mention that “communist” idea of “each according to his needs.”  Smoking has become one of the core issues in our democratic quagmire, in which both the Left and the Right say  and do ridiculous things to justify their values, no matter how damaging or unfair it is to others.  The irony is that everyone on both sides who resists the idea of government intrusion into private life is losing – big time.

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