MAYBE YOU recall those scared-straight pictures from elementary school of two lungs side by side on a lab tray: on the left, a moist, pink, happy loaf of healthy tissue; on the right, a shriveled, black, igneous lump. Such public service messages traumatized me as a child; so did watching a three-pack-a-day uncle die of emphysema. I pretty much believe everything I’ve ever heard about the danger of cigarettes; I don’t smoke, and I never will. None of which has anything to do with (or should have anything to do with) someone else’s right to light up.
For many righteous Portlanders, January 1, the day the statewide smoking ban in bars takes effect, will mark the beginning of a long-awaited era during which Oregonians will be free to punish their livers without blackening their lungs. For me the day will represent merely another installment in the gradual erosion of individual liberties in a town that once cared more about personal freedoms than cowering groupthink.
Passed last year by an 18-to-12 vote in the Oregon Senate, the smoking ban has been cannily positioned by crusaders as a public health issue when, to me, smoking bans in bars have as much to do with public health as the Clear Skies initiative has to do with clean air and credible environmental oversight. By legislating away a custom that has been legal since the day the first trees were clear-cut from the banks of the Willamette, the smoking ban is foremost a violation of individual rights. Worse, it’s yet another way to dispatch the notion of personal responsibility by imposing the morality of an intolerant majority upon a presumably subversive minority.
Perhaps more startling than Portland’s acquiescence to government mollycoddling is the fact that social conservatives have made smoking bans an issue at all. Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing our vaunted free market is supposed to sort out? If enough patrons want nonsmoking bars, won’t savvy business owners start opening nonsmoking bars? Oh, wait—they already have. According to Barflymag.com, a font of local boozehound info, 222 Portland bars already ban smoking, and not just to get ahead of the law. Reacting to its customer base, Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub, downtown, went nonsmoking in 2000, four years before Ireland disgraced itself with a ban. And Cactus Jack’s, in Southwest Portland, went smoke-free earlier this year. “The smartest decision I ever made,” says owner Jack Stanley.
“In a small place, one person smoking can affect everyone’s experience.”I have no problem with bar owners who want to ban smoking in their own places. I don’t go to vegan restaurants—the food tastes like topsoil—but I’m glad I live in a society where my vegan sisters can get their fixes in peace.
The larger issue is where smoking bans will lead. Dismiss my hysterics if you must, but don’t think that the zealots behind this will stop with your right to do your Keith Richards impression in public. The puritan scolds who’ve managed to crush out tobacco in bars (they pulled the same trick with alcohol in the 1920s) are now pushing for smoking bans in cars. That’s the intent, anyway, of Washington state representative Shay Schual-Berke, who earlier this year sponsored a bill that would make it illegal in the Evergreen State for drivers or passengers to light up if there’s anyone under 18 in the car. Schual-Berke’s justification, quoted in the Oregonian, revealed how some lawmakers feign concern about humanity to mask the fact that other people’s behavior simply drives them crazy—and that they feel they have the right to legislate personal habits: “I cannot stand when I drive around and I see people smoking and I watch their children in the backseat choking,” Schual-Berke said.