Smoking ban may be a “success,” but it’s still a bad precedent

Like anyone else with any sense, I dislike many things about the world I live in – and, for better or worse, many of these are products of our free republic. Indeed, our cherished freedoms have led to any number of noxious outcomes. Among the things I would like to see go the way of the Edsel are kiddie beauty pageants; Michael Bay movies; anything Ted Nugent does, says, produces, purchases, consumes, or attempts to sing; light beer; and, of course, three out of four members of the popular KISS tribute band MiniKiss. (Mini Gene Simmons is kind of cool.)

To that list, you can add smoking. I don’t smoke, and the one or two times I tried it, I found it unappealing, to say the least. I don’t like secondhand smoke. I don’t like it when people throw their spent cigarettes out the window when I’m following them on the highway. And most importantly, I don’t like the health outcomes it produces. If you want to screw up your body, tobacco use of any kind is about the fastest legal way to do it. I’m totally on board with all of that.

So you might think I’d be celebrating the one-year anniversary of Wisconsin’s law banning smoking in restaurants and bars. After all, it’s a big hit. In an editorial last week lauding the measure, the Wisconsin State Journal noted that 75% of voters now support the ban, which is up from 69% before the law was passed. And a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story noted that Gov. Scott Walker, an early critic of the ban, has decided to stand pat on this one: “Although I did not support the original smoking ban, after listening to people across the state, it is clear to me that it works,” the governor said in a statement. “Therefore I will not support a repeal.”

So I have many practical reasons to join the majority and support the ban: 1) I hate smoking and the damage it causes. 2) My life is better as a result of the ban, because I can now go into any bar or restaurant in this state and know that I won’t be assaulted by cigarette smoke. 3) If I supported the ban, there’d be a marginally lower chance that I’d be high-fived by a table of Glenn Beck fans redolent of deer musk and English Leather and be invited to a Posse Comitatus hunting retreat in Ishpeming. 4) I wouldn’t wake up in a sweat every night knowing that I’m more Republican on an issue than Scott Walker.

But, unfortunately, I simply can’t join the crowd on this one. I have to side with the – um, er, argh – libertarians who argue that businesses should be able to decide whether or not they will allow their patrons to consume a legal product on their premises.

After all, liberals are supposed to support the freedom to choose, and this is, ultimately, about choice. Smokers should be free to choose whether or not they smoke. Business owners should be free to choose whether or not they allow smokers to smoke in their establishments. Nonsmokers should be free to choose whether they want to patronize businesses that allow smoking. As with the preservation of any right, whether the majority approves of it ain’t got nothin’ to do with nothin’.

Like it or not, when people smoke in bars in which smoking is allowed, there are no negative externalities. Everyone from the smoker to the bar owner to the nonsmoker who inhales secondhand smoke has accepted his or her fate. Indeed, it would make more sense to ban drinking in bars, because there’s at least a chance that a truly innocent person could be harmed if a drinker has too much to drink, gets in a car, and drives home.

We have to get over this idea that it’s okay to ban things simply because we happen not to like them – or even because they’re dangerous. After all, danger appeals to many people, and to some folks (not me, of course), brash risk-taking is part of what makes life worth living.

Smoke-filled bars are the milieu of people who often appreciate the grittier side of life, and that’s their right. Personally, I prefer a smoke-free spot with ferns in which I can discuss art and philosophy, sip a cosmo or mimosa, and regale unavailable women with tales of my vast collection of Baryshnikov memorabilia. (That’s a softball I’m tossing to my conservative brother Paul to make up for mentioning him in this blog post.)

If we start banning dangerous activities in which no one is hurt except the people who freely engage in those activities, what’s to stop us from banning motorcycles, skydiving, scuba diving, junk food, or, for that matter, driving from coast to coast on curvy country roads taking in the scenery?

We have to avoid creating a country in which people’s rights are trampled by the majority. As I said, there are a lot of things I don’t like, but it’s not up to me to vote them out of existence.

Of course, I’m happy as anything that I can now breathe freely in any Wisconsin pub, but I’m still uneasy about the law that made that possible – because I can’t help but feel that it’s only a matter of time before the majority takes aim at some of the products that I’ve freely chosen.

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