Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lighten up

This morning's Daily Advertiser runs a letter that begins with aplomb:

Will the socialists who are trying to make the government to make all places smoke-free stop whining?

The rest is your typical rant about personal freedoms, market forces and how if you don't like it, go away.

Upon first encountering this letter, as often happens, I paused at the third word. Socialists. Now, I've long since grown accustomed to hearing the word "socialist" thrown around with all the discretion of beads at a Mardi Gras parade through the Playboy Mansion — it is, after all, a convenient catch-all term for anyone who wants to share anything more than a sunset. But even given that, it's an odd term to use here.

I suppose it's possible that the writer sees the proposing ban on smoking as an example of government overreach, so it's only natural that socialists want it. But that association is possible only in our current political and media climate, where raving pundits love to bark "socialism" at all things gubmint without ever taking one stab at the actual definition and tenets of socialism. Presumably because it's more fun to brand all advocates of a law/issue with the broad brush of a poorly defined but loaded political philosophy. The first sentence conveys a telling anger that threatens to overshadow the stated issue altogether, before he can even address it. It brings to mind one of my favorite Onion articles, "I Can't Stand It When Jews Talk During Movies."

I could debate that one hangup all day. Suffice to say, not everyone who supports a business smoking ban is a socialist. The same goes for virtually every other relevant issue in America. Nothing supported exclusively by socialists would have any kind of traction in the United States, because there aren't that many socialists here (at least in the real sense of what socialists support). There are far more conservatives, corporatists and fundamentalists to cancel them out in both society and in all levels of leadership. So breathe easy, friend.

Speaking of breathing...let's move on to the smoking issue itself. A smoking ban in most businesses, such as one currently being hotly debated in Lafayette, seems like it could be a cut-and-dry political issue, but it's not. I know liberals and conservatives who want it, and both who don't. It seems to be more of a smoker-nonsmoker divide than a political one (though libertarians I know hate it regardless of smoker status). For the record, I'm all for a smoking ban in all indoor, enclosed spaces in businesses that cater to the public.

Full disclosure: I'm not a smoker, never have been and hate being around it. I have many friends who smoke, but more who don't, probably because of natural migration. Thus I've been accused in the past of being self-interested in my stance (as if I'm the only one). I think my side of the issue has more merit. Here's why: smoking is an obtrusive and dangerous habit. Not smoking is not. If a smoker and a nonsmoker share the same air, it should be the smoker, not the nonsmoker, who should adjust. Those opposed to a smoking ban feel the opposite should be true. But it's never made sense to me to cast out the people who aren't invading others' airspace. Where is the sense in that?

But I get it. No one's going to listen to me on the issue. After all, I don't understand what it's like to be addicted to nicotine. Also, I'm a pompous socialist who hates freedom so much that I want smoke-free air and health care. Fine. Agree to disagree.

However, there's another angle on this issue that's harder to argue: workplace safety.

A smoking ban would be an absolute boon for employees and employers alike. Nonsmoking employees should never have to withstand secondhand smoke throughout a shift. Not only does it endanger health without their consent, but it also leads to higher costs for employers who provide health insurance (other costs include more sick days). To me and other proponents of a smoking ban, it's no different than any other workplace-safety mandate, such as machine guards, hard hats, etc. No job should kill you, nor should you be pressured into quitting a job for demanding a safe environment. Especially not in this economy.

For those of you who want to debate with me the effects of secondhand smoke: don't. I'm not swayed by tobacco-funded junk science. I'm also not moved by the broad definition of freedom many want to apply to things like the "freedom" to quit your job or stay home if smokers bother you. This isn't about those who choose to smoke; it's about those who don't. Nonsmokers who want to breathe clean air aren't hurting a captive audience, whereas smokers adversely affect others as well as themselves. And because we as Americans apply the right-infringing principle on every other front, there's no reason not to apply it with regards to smoking.

So, yes, smoking is a workplace safety issue. There are ways for both smokers and nonsmokers to coexist, and no one is calling for illegalizing cigarettes. But just like workplaces must meet local and federal codes of safety, they should also be smoke-free.

There's already a smoking section: outside.

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