[from July 2005 issue]


We know that we are about to wade into treacherous territory, but we simply cannot sit quietly and not protest the seemingly out-of-control societal penchant to ban one thing after another. Quite frankly, the way matters are headed, living here is soon going to be no different than living in Singapore where the government severely punishes all persons for the most minor “quality of life” infractions, such as dropping a candy wrapper on the sidewalk. Do we really want this? Scoff if you will, but we are convinced the trend is in that direction.

And, in the District of Columbia that trend seems to be on the fast track!

In the July 4th edition of The Washington Post, an article in the Metro Section headlined “D.C.’s List Of Don’ts Grating on Some Nerves” surely made for an ironic Independence Day statement. And, while that report focused on only a few citizens expressing their concern that “what’s happening crosses the line between vigilance and intrusiveness,” this sentiment is vastly more widespread than our well-intentioned fellow citizens are willing to admit.

The beauty of being a citizen in a free society is that we are free to decide how we wish to live, even if our decisions may not always be “good for us” and maybe even cause serious consequences. Bungee jumping and sky diving come to mind, as do eating fatty foods, too much candy, having a few too many beers or even--yes, here it is--smoking.

We join with large numbers of our fellow citizens with whom we are personally acquainted in saying that government should butt out of our affairs.

Having said this, however, we are not insensitive to a citizen’s responsibility to avoid causing harm to others. Yet, by the same token, the others have a responsibility to take prudent measures to avoid situations that they believe may be personally detrimental to them. We much prefer that we decide for ourselves how to negotiate through life without the intervention of Nanny National whenever possible to do so. (Obviously, we need government to protect us from many deadly hazards and wonton actions by totally irresponsible persons, but not to inject itself willy-nilly in loco parentis.)

The move to outright ban smoking in places of leisure-time and social activity is a case in point. This does not mean that we believe smoking isn’t hazardous to human health; we do and that is one reason why we don’t smoke. (Another reason is that we think it’s icky.) And we do empathize with people who dislike being around smokers, especially when dining or socializing in crowded places. We feel the same way. But rather than calling on government to outlaw the habit outright, we simply choose to patronize establishments where it is either non-existent or the conditions are such that the smoke does not especially bother us. But that is our choice and we want the right to be able to make that choice for ourselves and not be told by Nanny Nation that we are not allowed to experience those conditions.

We don’t mean to sound like Ayn Rand, but that’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

But let’s examine a couple of the arguments put forth by the proponents of a smoking ban which raise real questions as to what their agenda might really be. Are they genuinely hoping for a healthier society or what?

One of their principal arguments is that we must do this to protect the health of bar and restaurant employees. Yet, there is little evidence that those workers have emerged in any significant numbers to demand such a ban. The proponents point to the support from the hotel workers union for the ban, yet what they don’t tell us is that bartenders and restaurant servers who work in the majority of establishments that are privately owned are not members of that union; further, most its members work in jobs nowhere near the places where patrons eat and drink.

Further, while we do not disagree that exposure to second-hand smoke may very well pose a potential health problem to many persons who might be more susceptible to airborne carcinogens than maybe are we, we wonder why the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has never issued a rulemaking declaring second-hand smoke to be a workplace hazard?

And, when we hear members of our city council declaring how terrible it is to allow smoking to continue, we have to wonder why the District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. that has yet to earmark a single dime of its federal tobacco settlement funds--since 1998, $521 million--for any local programs related to smoking cessation education and related efforts, as was contemplated by the federal government would be the purpose to which these funds would be used when distributed to the states.

If our politicians really believe the evidence is so overwhelming about second-hand smoke being such a public health emergency, why have they diverted those monies into the city’s general fund to be frittered away?

Aside from the philosophical issues about individual responsibilities, personal freedom and such, we need to make the point that while second-hand smoke is not an especially desirable environmental condition, it sure as heck pales in comparison to the vicious chemical pollutants all of us city-dwellers are subject to throughout our lives that emanate from cars, trucks, busses, and whatnot that are fouling our air and from which there is little escape. Now, that’s the really dangerous public health hazard that is polluting the air we breathe, not to say anything about how it is destroying the planet.

Shouldn’t the city council outlaw the use of gasoline-powered vehicles on our streets right away?