I'm not a smoker and don't plan on becoming one. I also prefer to eat my dinner in a smoke-free restaurant. But, like many in Kentucky, I have friends who smoke, and I respect their decision to do so.
We live in a large, diverse society made up of people with different customs, traditions and habits — including the habit of smoking cigarettes. Economic progress requires that unique people (like smokers and non-smokers) figure out how to interact with one another in peaceful and civilized ways.
Unfortunately, some members of the Kentucky state legislature are considering a broad-based, government-imposed smoking ban that would do nothing to help in this regard and, in fact, push society in the opposite direction.
House Bill 289 bans smoking everywhere indoors, except private residences without businesses in them. That includes not only bars and restaurants but everything from private clubs to police cars — and, to top it off, the bill extends the ban everywhere outside those places that falls within 15 feet of any entrance.
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Comprehensive smoking bans fail us on several fronts. First, they're intolerant of the choices and rights of smokers. Also, they demonstrate an equal intolerance for businesses and property owners who may want to serve smokers. Conformity is forced upon the populace without their agreement.
This is a recipe for social discord, with one part of the citizenry upset with the other at what's being forced upon them, accompanied by nasty disputes in the political arena.
Seeking agreement without conformity is a far superior approach. How is this done? We agree that both smoking and non-smoking establishments may operate, and we each choose the type we prefer. We have no dispute even if I choose one way and you choose the other.
What about secondhand smoke? Tolerance of other's choices includes the explicit choice to smoke and also the implicit choice to be exposed to secondhand smoke. Where the latter choice does not exist — in confined and public places like elevators, courthouses, and public transit — smoking bans make sense. But by entering a private establishment that permits smoking, I implicitly agree to be exposed to secondhand smoke. I will do so if the other attractions of the business more than offset my displeasure at a smoky environment.
Proponents of HB 289 often argue that they put public health first. If so, one wonders why e-cigarettes, which lack secondhand smoke and are the equivalent of using a nicotine patch, are also included in Kentucky's proposed ban.
To be fair, one of the stronger and more sincere public-health arguments behind smoking bans is that smokers get ill more frequently, with public insurance (and much of private insurance) often picking up the tab.
But even here, smoking ban advocates miss the mark. The resolution isn't a smoking ban. It's to go to the root of the problem and enable more flexibility in insurance markets so that smokers pay higher premiums than nonsmokers. This way, smokers are paying for their higher health-care costs.
A thriving, diverse place like the United States requires no shortage of tolerance for other people's ideas, customs, and habits. Unfortunately, the urge to demonize and marginalize some segment of the population sometimes seems irresistible, especially if one has had a negative personal or family experience regarding that segment of the population.
But maintaining a civil society means protecting liberties and resisting the temptation to use personal tragedy to ram through laws at odds with our basic principles.
So here is the social bargain we ought to seek. Non-smokers should not force their choices regarding tobacco use on everyone else; but they should not be forced to breathe secondhand smoke without consent. Smokers should not expect others to pay their higher health-care costs, but shouldn't be forced to hole up in their homes to smoke, worrying about the next piece of anti-smoking legislation.