- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

“Government nannyism,” is how a Maryland legislator once characterized proposed bans on smoking in restaurants and bars that are swirling across the nation.

Indeed, the intrusive initiatives seek to make children of adults.

California and Delaware outlaw smoking in all bars and restaurants, with many more jurisdictions, including New York City, either enacting or considering radical smoking restrictions. Many of the bans, however, have been rightfully rescinded or delayed after court challenges such as the one in Maryland.

Undaunted by the Maryland Court of Appeals overturning its smoking ban on a parliamentary technicality, the Montgomery County Council will try to impose its restaurant smoking ban for a second time. The latest measure, to be voted on in July, will be the most restrictive in the county as it seeks to extend the ban to outdoor areas such as sidewalk cafes and to private clubs.

While the government plays a necessary role in maintaining public safety and order, how far should that regulating role extend? In a democracy, is it desirable or dangerous to devise legislation designed to enforce preferred personal behavior? Whatever happened to personal freedom to exercise personal responsibility — or not? Adults often cling to their bad habits no matter how much you tax them, ban them or shame them. And that is their right.

Smokers, better than anyone else, know the risk they take to light up their butts.

What’s needed is a more substantive, age-appropriate public service campaign aimed at deterring children from smoking. Supporters of smoking bans point to medical studies that indicate that smoking increases the likelihood of getting cancer. So does poor diet or lack of exercise. So does stress. What laws will be created to counteract these risk factors? The argument that smoking bans will bring about a desired health improvement is still uncertain. To date, no study indicates that smokers considerably cease their puffing owing to such bans.

As for the public health issues concerning the incidence of cancer deaths among nonsmokers, who are affected by secondhand smoke, imposing such bans in the workplace are indeed proper. After all, most people are captive audiences in their offices.

Take note: The studies on the health effects from secondhand smoke are also conflicting. Some swear it’s a killer; others say it is not.

Yet, nonsmokers can just as easily make the choice to patronize eating and drinking establishments that voluntarily impose bans. At least they have options.

Smokers do not.

Can you just see “smokeasies” lining Rockville Pike if the smoking bans are actually enforced? Who, by the way, will enforce them? I am not a smoker. Never have been. But some of my closest friends are, so we take turns sitting in the smoking or nonsmoking section of the restaurants we frequent.

In a bar, I just expect a smoke-filled atmosphere. Taking away options not only of smokers, but also of small businesses, who want all of their customers to be comfortable, also seems too restrictive.

Undoubtedly, small neighborhood hangouts with a well-established clientele will be hard hit economically. Blue-collar businesses faced with bans did not fare well either. While some national studies indicate there is no negative impact on businesses where bans are imposed, other studies show the opposite. Granted, some of the latter were funded by the tobacco industry, but not all.

In Maryland, for example, legislators initially reached a compromise between the environmentalists and the hospitality industry. The measure restricted smoking in restaurants to bar areas or enclosed areas with ventilation. This seems fair and sufficient.

Smoke-sensitive workers could be assigned to these restricted areas.

Unfortunately for those who want a smoke-free environment, the Maryland compromise was not enough. Remember how the little township of Friendship Heights unsuccessfully attempted to ban all outdoor smoking? It was set to go with a “No puffing in the park” signs.

It is highly likely that the re-enacted Montgomery County smoking ban will face another court challenge by restaurateurs, as well it should.

Today, Big Brother is after smokers. Tomorrow, will it sanction social drinkers, overeaters or people who wear pink? Where does the “government nannyism” end? In this classic clash between individual rights and public welfare, government just ought to butt out.

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