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The Tentacle


January 11, 2007

Put Out The Smoking Ban

Tony Soltero

We've got a lot of issues in Maryland. Things that need improvement, messes we need to clean up, initiatives we need to launch. Our new General Assembly has convened, ready to tackle the projected budget deficit, health care, education, our tax structure, emissions standards, and transportation, among other things.

And the slot machines will again have more lives than a roomful of cats.

That's a pretty full plate. There's not much room for frills or irrelevant junk. And with Democrats firmly in control in both chambers and a Democrat executive, we'll don't need to worry about our legislature wasting time on the social wedge issues many Republicans are so fond of.

However, the Democrats are not without their indulgences. And there's a proposal on the legislative agenda that seems to be favored by a fair number of Democrats that amounts to pure, mindless frivolity.

I'm talking about the idea of a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. I'm usually on board with most Democrat priorities, but this is just plain silly. It's the nanny state at its worst and most patronizing - the government claiming the right to regulate personal behaviors.

I am not a smoker. I never have been. I made the decision not to smoke based on the overwhelming evidence that smoking is destructive to one's health. And given that smoking is an acquired craving - unlike, say, eating, which is a basic human need - it wasn't too difficult to stay away from tobacco.

But the government didn't coerce me into this decision; it simply provided the information and let me make the choice. That's the way a free society is supposed to work.

I also understand that I don't get to make those decisions for other people. I don't get to tell others what foods to eat. I don't get to tell others who to date or marry. And I don't get to tell others whether or not they should smoke.

I can personally discourage others from getting hooked on nicotine - one of the most insidiously addictive substances there is. But the ultimate decision belongs to the individual, not the government.

There's no reason the same logic shouldn't apply to commercial establishments.

If a restaurant feels that it can generate more income by advertising itself as smoke-free, it will voluntarily ban smoking from its premises. Many restaurants do just that - and earn steady and loyal clienteles for it. But if an eatery wants to bill itself as a smokers' haven, it should have every right to do so. Customers, who don't care for cigarette smoke, don't have to patronize such a restaurant if they don't want to.

The free market isn't infallible, but this is one of those cases in which we're best off just leaving things to market forces. There will be plenty of restaurants and bars around to cater to the needs of every possible customer.

So, what's driving this smoking ban?

Well, I'm sure it's well-intentioned for the most part. Clean, smoke-free air is certainly nice to breathe, and the long-term health of Marylanders is definitely a goal worth pursuing.

But I wonder if some of this is driven by smug self-righteousness. There are elements in every society that have this primal need to feel morally superior to others - and punishing smokers for "unhealthy lifestyle choices" helps fulfill this unseemly urge to lord it over "inferior" people.

This kind of attitude is common among religious fundamentalists, but it's certainly not limited to them. "Well, at least I don't smoke, unlike those people!"

It's certainly a worthwhile goal to reduce the incidence of smoking in our state. But there's a big difference between accomplishing it by education and accomplishing it by government fiat. The latter approach is counterproductive at best. Smokers aren't bad people because they smoke.

There is a place for government regulation of corporate interests in our society. There are definitely some areas where we need more of it - the oil and insurance industries come to mind. But smoking bans do not fall in this category - and indeed, by attempting to regulate something so comparatively trivial, the case for regulation where it is warranted is consequently weakened in the eyes of the public.

Our General Assembly has better things to do. Let's stuff this smoking ban into the ashtray of irrelevance.



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