To Ban Or Not To Ban: The Liberal Dilemma on Smoking

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

I’m a non-smoker. I believe that cigarettes have a destructive impact and that the tobacco industry perpetrated a willful, harmful fraud against the American public. I’m a liberal. I subscribe to the public health concerns around smoking and am concerned about the overall societal costs for caring for those damaged by the habit. I fully believe these concerns demand us to take action.

Yet, I’m unsure about the latest smoking ban put forth by the City Council.

It’s not often I agree with Dan Halloran, the conservative City Council member who most recently made news with trumped up charges against city workers after the December blizzard as part of an ideological, right-wing smear campaign against organized labor. But on the Brian Lehrer Show on Friday, he and progressive Council Member Robert Jackson made compelling arguments as they explained what made them “odd bedfellows” in opposing the Council action to ban smoking in public parks, plazas, beaches and boardwalks. 

How would the law be policed? Would it require extensive resources? Will it fall on the shoulders of our park workers whose numbers have been drastically diminished due to budget cuts? Will it create tensions between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding citizens? Will violators be warned or ticketed? The city has been known to lean on violations to boost city revenue, but it seems absurd to fine a tourist unfamiliar with the ban or a stressed out worker who absent-mindedly lights up on a break. Scarier still is the notion of uneven enforcement: will it be one more excuse to target New Yorkers of color, who are already disproportionately caught up in the city’s expansive stop-and-frisk policies?

Halloran didn’t do himself any favors making false equivalencies and quoting pseudo-science, like noting that no study has shown the risks from second-hand smoke to be greater than the risks from truck exhaust is just a distraction. The impact of second-hand smoke has been well-documented. Plus, while the city should also take aggressive measures to protect residents from other pollutants, this doesn’t need to be either-or.

On one hand, as a liberal, I embrace the purpose behind the ban. I respect science-based public policy, and want action that promotes the public good. But as a liberal, I also want citizens to build a positive relationship with their government, a trust that may be jeopardized by an overreaching legislative act and by intrusive enforcement. Furthermore, as a liberal, I want the public to see the government working effectively, and I worry the enforcement of this law will be haphazard at best, and discriminatory at worst.

Then there’s the fact that I enjoy hanging out at bars. Our pubs are democratic spaces and the venues for our national network of political social clubs called “Drinking Liberally." Drinking Liberally isn’t about the alcohol — you are welcome drink water or coffee, juice or soda — but about the social community that forms around talking politics (and I should note that plenty of conservatives attend). But we do meet in bars — despite the evidence that alcohol consumption has a potentially deleterious effect on personal health and alcohol abuse is extremely destructive to society.

We have our vices. Shouldn’t smokers be allowed to have theirs?

Of course drinking and smoking aren’t direct parallels, and drinking is heavily regulated and kept out of public spaces (to an unnecessary extreme). Yet, it does seem that middle-ground steps — like separate smoking and non-smoking sections of the beach — could be a way of reducing smoking and its second-hand effects, making the law more governable, and still allowing citizens to engage in their self-destructive actions without hurting everyone else.

That said, I’ve been wrong before. Before the spring of 2002, though I wasn’t a smoker, I hung out in one of the smokiest nooks in Manhattan, the dive bar Rudy’s. When the ban came, I remember feeling bad for the older regulars whose lifestyle was about to dramatically change, and for the owner who would no doubt lose money.

Nine years later, Rudy’s is more packed than ever, and people have learned to smoke outside. The regulars are still there in the day, and business is booming at night. But the most telling testimony was from the bar manager who had angrily opposed the ban before it passed. About three months later, he conceded: “Business is fine, the bar is cleaner than it’s ever been, and I’m not coughing the way I used to.“

The smoking ban of 2002 was a success for the city, a model for the country, and sparked bans around the world. Let’s hope this newest ban proves us skeptics — including us non-smoking liberally skeptics — wrong as well.

February 06, 2011

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