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The smoking ban

| Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006

It was bound to happen sooner or later -- even in Pittsburgh. On Tuesday, Allegheny County Council voted 14-1 to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and pubs.

This news hit me especially hard. I spend the occasional Thursday night sitting in my favorite Irish pub, the Pour House in Carnegie, enjoying adult beverages and a fine Honduran cigar.

Smoking at the pub brings out the conviviality in a man. We puff and we sip, we talk and we laugh. There is nothing novel in our conversations. The same ones have been enjoyed thousands of times inside the pub walls -- their effortlessness made possible by adult beverages and fine Honduran cigars.

But some folks are trying to end our cigar-enhanced conviviality forever.

The libertarian side of me is angry about that. What business is it of the government to ban the use of a legal product within the confines of a privately owned business?

I'm annoyed, too, about the motives that produced the ban. Many of its proponents claim to be motivated by the health and well-being of pub employees, but for many that was merely the pretext.

What really motivates them is their longing for power, their need to sense moral victory -- their need to experience the rush they get when the government forces the rest of us to behave the way they want us to behave.

Their motivation is fueled by a puritanical need for meaning and clarity. In an age of moral relativism -- when good and evil are in broad dispute -- the human heart needs to label something "good" and something else "evil."

Thus, the hot fashion of the moment: Smoking is evil and a government ban is good. Americans loathe smoking the way we once did communism and polio.

Despite the motives behind the ban, however, I see the other side -- that some good will come out of it.

One pub owner told me he favors the ban. He's tired of spending money to operate three smoke-ventilation systems, tired of having to change the filters constantly to minimize the stink.

When I sit down for a meal or a cup of coffee, the last thing I want is for someone to light up right next to me. Isn't this an imposition• An old Steve Martin line illustrates the point. When someone says to him, "Mind if I smoke?" he replies, "No, mind if I pass gas?"

It's true, too, that people with lung disorders are unable to bear the pub smoke. One of my favorite musicians is unable to play some venues because the smoke inflames his asthma. When the ban goes into effect, I'll get to see him play everywhere.

So I see both sides of this issue. I see the upside of a world in which fewer people smoke. There aren't many things you can do that are as bad for your health as smoking cigarettes. And, as the surgeon general reported this summer, secondhand smoke is harmful.

But I worry about the puritanical, government-mandated direction the world is headed in -- that our secular societies are pushing such bans, in part, to fulfill their need for moral clarity.

I worry that in order to attain some good, we'll continue to make pacts with other forces that are not so good -- the forces that restrain, restrict, monitor and punish. The forces that take away our ability to enjoy perfectly legal vices now and then -- you know, the way adults used to function in a free society.

All I know is there aren't many things as enjoyable as an occasional cigar in an Irish pub on a Thursday night, a harmless vice when enjoyed infrequently.

And it annoys me that if this ban is not rescinded -- it may be because proposed gambling casinos may be exempt, supposedly giving them a competitive advantage -- I might not be able to smoke anymore at my favorite Irish pub.

Oh, well, at least I'll still be allowed to drink adult beverages -- until somebody figures out how to ban them again.

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