One long drag: Legislature chokes on the smoking ban

March 22, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

Maryland was very nearly, just about everywhere-that-really-counted, smoke-free.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

Now, apparently, thanks to the brave stand taken by the state legislature, you can't smoke in the office or at the mall, but you'll still be able to smoke in a bar. In a hotel lobby. In a bowling alley. In other words, in all the places that make life worth living.

The legislators said they were doing this not to protect smokers or because the tobacco lobby (cigarettes don't kill; lung cancer does) gave them a big pile of money. No, they said they were doing it in order to protect the state tourist industry.

You can believe that at your own risk. The law, however, does not come with a warning label.

Here's the concept:

If Maryland were too healthy -- we're already in the top three in cancer rates, and our murder rate's pretty hardy, too -- tourists wouldn't want to come here anymore. No sir. As an example, most conventioneers, if they're anything like the rest of us, can't really enjoy their meal unless some second-hand smoke adds that special flavor to the food. I like all my food blackened.

And how often have you returned from a vacation to tell the guys at the office: "I went to this great bar. You couldn't see six inches because of the smoke in there. Here, I brought some back with me in this jar."

Personally, I don't mind if people smoke.

I don't care if they get yellow teeth and yellow fingers and short breath and a short life because they just love the way that throat-searing smoke goes down.

That's their business. (Although, a higher cigarette tax might help pay the medical bills that the rest of us are footing. But, hey, we're not raising taxes these days, are we? In fact, next up in Congress: a middle-class smokers' tax cut.)

What I mind is their smoke in my face.

What I'm saying is, I don't want people blowing smoke at me while I'm trying to pick up that elusive 7-10 split on league night.

Actually, I haven't bowled since the late '70s.

And second-hand smoke, though certainly a killer, has probably already got me. My mother smoked three packs a day. In our house, smoke gets in your eyes was not a song; it was a way of life. We had to wear miner's hats, with the little light on 'em, just to get from room to room.

When I escaped the house, I did it in an airplane. A million frequent flier miles later, well, you can imagine.

Remember how the smoke from the back of the plane would circle you like a plane coming down at O'Hare? That's when you weren't actually forced to sit in the smoking section. In a middle seat. Eating airplane food. Wondering why you just don't take your life. Understanding that, with all the smoke, the job's already been done for you.

Amazingly, now that planes have banned smoking, people still fly. How do you explain it?

(By the way, if I can digress here -- and there's no law against it in Maryland -- have you seen the ads for Marlboro Gear? What's up with that? What kind of gear do Marlboro smokers actually need? Zippo lighters? Breath mints? A month's worth of nicotine patches? Then I found out it's like outdoor gear. It's also T-shirts and hats and other wearables with that nifty Marlboro logo. What I like is camping with somebody who's got a really good smoker's cough. And the smell of tobacco in the morning? Sign me up.)

Look, we're adults here, except for all those 15-year-old girls I see smoking because they think it's either cool or will keep them thin. Everybody with the IQ of Kato Kaelin knows cigarettes kill. I find it hard to sympathize with people, once they get cancer, who decide to sue the tobacco companies, like there wasn't that warning on each pack that says, "Hey, bozo, smoke this and you die."

These guys who run the tobacco industry are the sleazes of the world, purveyors of death, killers of half a million Americans a year, friends to most congressmen. But they're not the issue. Second-hand smoke is the issue.

Maryland had a chance to get way out in front on this one. Parris "Why Doesn't Anyone Ever Listen to Me" Glendening is trying to salvage what would be the toughest smoking law in the country.

Imagine this tourist slogan: Come to Maryland and Breathe Easy.

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