Smoking foes' unfair campaign

January 08, 2001|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- I'll make this as clear as I can.

I hate smoking. Always have. It probably doesn't help that my parents, both smokers, died of cancer, but truth is, I was no fan of the habit even before that. From the time I was a small boy, I considered smoking the filthiest custom imaginable.

As a rule, I consider smoking bans one of the precious few signs of intelligent life on earth. It's great to enter the supermarket, the concert hall, the workplace and know I'll be able to breathe, unaffected by someone else's cloud of exhaust. If smokers don't like it, tough. As far as I'm concerned, my right to preserve my health and conduct my business in a comfortable atmosphere supersedes anyone else's right to smoke in a public building.

I like smoking bans.

Yet the community of Friendship Heights, Md., just imposed a new ban on smoking, and I'm against it.

You know why? Because Friendship Heights has extended its ban beyond buildings to include outdoor spaces -- parks, sidewalks, streets. It's the latest and, by the reckoning of some observers, the most stringent of the recent spate of laws nationwide seeking to regulate outdoor smoking. And it leaves me troubled and perplexed.

You regulate those who smoke to protect those who don't. Or at least that's what I've always assumed. And assuming the assumption is correct, then I'm at a loss to figure out what is supposed to be accomplished here.

Why ban smoking outdoors, where all one has to do to escape smoke is take a step or two away? You might say the issue is litter -- Lord knows smokers despoil the environment -- but if that's the case, why not ban gum chewing, too? I'm sorry, but from where I sit, this ban seems less an attempt to shield people who don't smoke than an attempt to beat up on people who do.

I don't like smoking. I think I may have mentioned that already. But guess what? People still smoke. They do it though it makes them social outcasts. They do it though they wind up huddled in doorways in downpours. They do it though they know the stuff is killing them.

They do it. And neither Friendship Heights nor any of us has the right to punish them for it.

A right to protect innocent bystanders from the risks of a smoker's indulgence? Yes. A right -- and responsibility -- to attack the tobacco industry for putting a smiley face on an addictive death stick and selling it to children? Definitely.

But not a right to punish grown people for doing some legal thing -- even a thing as dumb as smoking -- when it affects only themselves.

There's arrogance to this, a sense of the big bullying the small. A sense of overkill, too. Smokers are in retreat, but instead of allowing them a graceful out, some of us want to run them out of existence. That's how you treat crack dealers and carjackers, maybe, but smokers? No. It's mean, it's abusive, it's antithetical to the concept of individual liberties, and it's something else, too. It's dumb. Counterproductive and dumb.

Americans do not like bullies, after all. Live and let live is the nation's credo. But anti-smoking forces seem to be edging toward a harsher credo: My way or the highway. And in the moment that happens, the movement sows the seeds of its own demise, the seeds of a backlash that could threaten not just smoking bans that are extreme and arrogant, but also those that are logical and prudent. Those that have saved lives.

Theoretically, they could put us right back where we started. Me, I grew up in the years when everybody smoked everywhere. In barely the space of a generation, anti-smoking forces have remade that world, changed social mores that were deep-rooted and long-standing, created a healthier nation. They should quit while they're ahead. Accept victory and quit finding ways to prolong the war.

Everybody knows smoking is hazardous to your health. But we may discover in the long run that arrogance is even worse.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll free at 1-800-457-3881.

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