Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Smoke 'em while you can

Not content to be one of the first county's in the nation to adopt smoking bans in most restaurants, Howard County is trying to snuff out all indoor smoking.

The measure, which would fine establishments $500 for allowing indoor smoking, is similar to legislation that Montgomery County passed in 2003 and that is under consideration in the District and Prince George's County.

If the proposed bans take effect -- which appears likely in at least two of the jurisdictions -- it would create a four-jurisdiction smoke-free zone stretching from the White House almost to Baltimore.

"I just can't wait any longer to ban smoking," said (County Executive Jim) Robey (D), who said he has watched several friends and family members die of smoking-related cancer. "Too many lives are at stake."

Naturally, the restauranteurs of this county, many of whom spent money upgrading ventilation systems in their establishments when the last ban took effect, are not very happy.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said a smoking ban would cripple the state's hospitality industry, particularly small bars and restaurants that depend on loyal smoking customers.

"It might be a small percentage of the entire market," he said. "But this sort of ban can really kill them."

...Thompson said 83 percent of eating and drinking establishments in Howard prohibit smoking as a result of that measure. He questioned why additional restrictions were necessary when so few businesses allow smoking.

On this issue, I'm divided. On one hand, I'm sympathetic to those who don't want to go out to eat or socialize surrounded by thick, noxious clouds of smoke. However, those with the most aversion to such atmospheres, it seems, have plenty of other options. Still, there are way more non-smokers than there are smokers, and we live in a society where majority rules (or at least, that's what my Republican friends like to tell me).

Moreover, I'm sympathetic to the bar and restaurant owners who assert that such bans will hurt their businesses (especially those who have already invested in ventilation systems). Despite the oft-repeated claim that such bans don't hurt sales, Thompson makes a very credible point with, "(i)f we didn't notice a pattern of economic damage to restaurants and bars, why would we be fighting this issue?" Um...nothing better to do? Wait, that was probably rhetorical.

What really gets under my skin about such proposal is the patronizing argument that smoking in these establishments is unfair to the employees, whose safety and well-being is at risk by second hand smoke. This argument is bunk for several reasons:

  1. Most people who work at bars smoke. If you don't believe, go to one (wear a mask or ventilator if you have to) and watch as bartenders sneak cigarettes between pours or servers steal away out back for a truncated smoke break.
  2. You almost never hear those who actually work at the bars and restaurants agitating for smoking bans.
  3. If over 83 percent of the eating and drinking establishments in HoCo already don't allow smoking, that should provide a sufficient array of potential employers for non-smoking workers in the industry.
There comes a point (and I think we're there) when government has to step aside and let people make their own choices--instead of parading the "We know what's best for you" line around ad nauseum. Everyone knows smoking is very bad for your health, yet despite taxes, regulations, prohibitions, and other controls some people continue to do it. So, if people are going to smoke, I say at least let them do it in comfort, rather than huddled outside a bar at 1 am in the middle of winter like a bunch of pathetic junkies jonesing for that last bit of nicotine.

For the second to last word, we'll turn to the western Howard councilman, Charles Feaga, who said, "Unless cigarettes become an illegal substance, we've gone far enough. This ban goes too far with its impact on the economics of the businesses and personal freedoms of smokers."

I'm sure you'll find that many smokers would be more than willing to "chip in their buck-o-five" if they could enjoy the freedom of enjoying both of their vices without leaving the comfort of a bar stool.

Yes, Len, that one's for you.

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