Special Report

Cruelty to Smokers

The pall of Bloombergism has fallen over the nation’s capital.

By 12.1.03

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WASHINGTON -- The pall of Bloombergism has fallen over the nation's capital. On December 3, the D.C. city council will hold a public hearing on the Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2003, which would ban smoking in all bars and restaurants. In fact, the bill may go further even than New York in quashing the rights of property owners to set the rules for the premises they own.

The bill's supporters characterize secondhand smoke as a life-or-death public health issue. A coalition of D.C. unions backing the bill, including the Washington Metro Labor Council and the AFL-CIO, claim that secondhand smoke kills some 65,000 Americans a year -- a figure three times the national murder rate. (Maybe I'll start defending myself from criminal predators in my gang-ridden neighborhood by brandishing an unlit cigarette and a lighter). New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg compares deaths from secondhand smoke to the carnage of September 11. "Think about all the press attention to 9/11," he says. "That number of people die every year in the city from secondhand smoke." That's right: If we allow smoking in bars, the terrorists will have won.

Of course, the epidemiological evidence doesn't come close to justifying such extravagant claims. Since the dose makes the poison, it's far from clear that passive inhalation of secondhand smoke poses any significantly increased health risk at all. The EPA's attempt to show that it does was laughed out of court as junk science by a federal district court judge in 1998. A study released last May in the British Medical Journal used data tracking 35,561 Californians over 39 years, and concluded, "The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality."

Everyone knows that active, as opposed to passive, smoking is bad for you. And that, in large part, is what smoking bans are intended to suppress. Antismoking activists see public smoking bans as an effective way to reduce smoking by turning smokers into pariahs. At a 1986 antismoking conference, Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education explained: "although the nonsmokers' rights movement concentrates on protecting the nonsmoker rather than on urging the smoker to quit for his or her own benefit, clean indoor air legislation reduces smoking because it undercuts the social support network for smoking by implicitly defining smoking as an antisocial act."

The antismoking activists are becoming increasingly candid about what was once a private strategy. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the New Jersey-based public health group that's donated a quarter of a million dollars to the drive for a D.C. smoking ban, exults at the notion that smoking bans can be used to harass smokers and lower their social standing. On November 18, RWJ ran an eight-page advertising supplement in the New York Times. The cover features a scene from the inside of a smoke-free bar, with glamorous twentysomethings chatting and drinking martinis. Through the bar's window, you can see a forlorn group of smokers huddled in the rain and shivering. The caption reads: "No longer cool, smokers find themselves out in the cold."

Of course, few people will get misty-eyed at the image of young hipsters forced to smoke outside. But D.C. and New York aren't the only places where the crusade for healthy living through coercion is occurring, nor are twentysomethings the only victims. All across the fruited plain, the antismoking movement is helping Americans get in touch with their inner tyrant and discover the joys of self-righteous cruelty.

Case in point: There's a small public housing complex for poor elderly people in De Pere, Wisconsin. As the Green Bay Press Gazette reports, the governing board of the complex is about to force retirees out into the Wisconsin cold whenever they want to smoke. In a letter to the housing authority, one tenant begged: "I smoke in my bathroom with the door closed and the exhaust fan on so as not to impose onto others. So please allow me to smoke in my apartment so I don't have to move and pay more rent so I can smoke."

But such pleas get little sympathy from the paladins of public health. "There's not that many that smoke. It's like a rotten apple in the bushel, one spoils it for the rest of them," said Jim Quinette, a citizen member of the board. "I'm sorry they have to put a cigarette out. But at that age, what do you need a cigarette for?"

A better question is, At that age, why shouldn't you have a cigarette? There are far nicer places to retire to than a public housing complex in Wisconsin, and simple pleasures like smoking may help combat the gloom. But in the world the lifestyle police are constructing, simple pleasures count as nothing next to the deep glow of self-satisfaction folks like Jim Quinette get from forcing you out in the cold for your own good.

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About the Author

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.