Tuesday, January 19, 2010


This post is going to be different from my usual unimportant self-indulgent crap. I want to set down my thoughts on an actual socially relevant issue. I don't have any real point to this other than explication and examination I guess. It does tie in to one of my pastimes so it is not totally off-the-wall.

My usual approach to discourse on political or social topics is to question a) the harm to others and b) why or how a government should be involved. Adults talk politics. We all have opinions. We approach it from all angles and talk the subject to death. Particularly Americans. On the one hand citizens of the USA are proud of a society where the individuals can (seemingly) affect change to their government at any level. On the other hand this makes getting anything done in this country really complicated. Sometimes drawn out to an interminable degree as we argue over every little thing, and wrangle back and forth while every viewpoint and appeal is heard.

Plenty of issues have circled round to prominence in the media and public debate only to fade for a little while... only to come back 'round again. If you live in this country, you know the topics: abortion, euthanasia, the war on drugs, the war on terror, etc. etc. If I apply my usual... dare I say 'simple'... approach as stated above on any of these issues, I usually can find my own position and hold it with conviction. Both parts of the question are answered, of course, through the filter of my personal political philosophy. Understanding labels to be much more limiting than most public mouthpieces seem to indicate, I would probably be classed as Libertarian or REALLY old-school Republican. That is, I generally believe it is not the government's place to be involved any more than it must. Of course what it MUST be involved in is the complicated part.

Some debates are much simpler to sort for me than they seem to be for the general public. Given that I hew to a conservative view of government involvement, a lot of other adults seem to think this should just adhere me to SOCIALLY conservative views as well... but that's a bunch of crap. Here's an example: Abortion.

Whatever a person's moral views on abortion, to me this comes down to whether the government should actually be involved. I believe there comes a point where any government is not a fine enough instrument (at any level) to be making, or helping to make, this decision for an individual. Whether abortion is the taking of a 'life' or not is beside the point for me. To expect the government to get between a mother and a (potential) baby is just too much. There are some decisions, even critical life-or-death decisions, that are not the business of a governing body. It is going to have to be between that person and their notion of God, if anyone really. I think the only answer is for administrations to butt the fuck out. Roe v. Wade has to stand on its foundation as a right to privacy, and I think a lot of socially conservative bulwark positions fall apart on these same grounds (euthanasia anyone?)... a pillar the Republican Party at one point stood upon. No law is going to be a fine enough instrument to be able to rightly-divide justice in a decision THAT personal.

Advocates on one side or the other of social debates like the abortion issue can seek to educate and sway all they want. I would encourage that. If you want people to cling to YOUR opinion, then persuade away. But to expect the government to get right down between the fetus and the womb that is carrying it? Uh, no.

Again, it really has nothing to do with the moral, spiritual or criminal arguments on whether the fetus has a 'right to life'. It comes down to it being up too personal. If we've decided (rightly in my opinion) that the government cannot decide for its citizens what is an acceptable sexual practice between two consenting adults in their own home... then it sure as hell doesn't get to wedge in even closer to the core of an individual and decide what one does with the contents of their own body.

So as I said, it is often pretty simple for me to find my view on a topic. I know there are lots of complications... and every political hot button has myriad aspects to it. Some of these can be solved... or rather a compromise can be reached... by individual states and their constituents. The federal government sledgehammer frequently is not the answer. Occasionally my social views make me sound rather like an ally to most liberal causes. Which I'm not. Or rather, I'm not if it requires the government to intervene. So that brings me (FINALLY) to the topic of the post.

I'm finding myself more an more in a quandry about smoking bans.

Cigar smoking is another pastime of mine, and I could definitely wax geekerific about it if I chose to. I'm not having any difficulty with whether or not I will actually continue to smoke cigars... I will if they continue to be available. But I'm finding my venues to actually DO the smoking to be rapidly vanishing.

A point to note maybe: this is more of a philosophical debate for me, than a matter of physical need. I'm a typical cigar smoker in that I indulge regularly, but not often. Addiction doesn't inform any personal part of the issue for me.

On the one hand, I have my own selfish desire to be able to enjoy a fine cigar. Its historical, its traditional, its awesome. Like fine wine or great food, cigars are a luxury and often an exclamation point on good times or a great moment (like ad copy for the cigar industry?). While the ones actually worth smoking can appear expensive, they are still an affordable luxury on a per unit basis. What I mean is that you can spend hundreds on a fine bottle of wine or wonderful dinner and get at most a couple of hours of enjoyment out of it. There are really good cigars to be had for several dollars each, and even the most expensive (barring really exclusive editions) are still less than twenty apiece... and typically take an hour, sometimes more, to smoke. Yeah, it'll take me three or four cigars before I get all the way through that bottle of port or cognac, but the booze also cost three to twenty times as much!

And, yeah yeah, you don't inhale cigars (you do a little, lets be honest), they don't have all the additives cigarettes do (true), and they are occasional (also usually true). They are not marketed to 'kids' the same way cigarettes are (also true, it requires a degree of affluence usually not associated with young smokers).

But most importantly, as with alcohol, pot, sex toys, and of course saturated fats, free-thinking adults should be allowed to put what we choose into our bodies. And, as with abortion, I feel no government should be getting right down to the level of telling us our personal business. The problem of course comes from the other aspect, the one that falls under part a) of my 'approach' the 'what harm' part.

In the case of alcohol, pot, and saturated fats there ARE larger 'harms' that folks want to consider when debating legislative action. Economic and criminal impacts obviously. The social and criminal harm inflicted by drunk drivers. The burden on society's medical costs from heart disease and the obese. In this country we are continually torn by trying to allow individuals to be individuals without infringing on someone else. Like I don't want the goverment telling me what to do, I don't want my neighbor imposing his bullshit on me either. Now drunk drivers impacting my life? Not all that common. I try to exercise common sense for myself and my friends. Yeah, I could be hit by some OTHER guy, but statistically not all that likely. So I can justify alcohol consumption (and for similar reasons pot consumption) being legal. The impact on my medical insurance costs by heart disease, diabetes, and other unhealthy food choices is probably significant, but somewhat diffuse. I can read all kinds of data on this, but there are obviously a ton (heh) of other health cost-impacting elements as well. And the regulation of food contents can be handled in ways other than laws restricting the individual citizen.

Smoking ain't so easy to just write off because of this: passive smoking. Or second hand smoke. Or environmental tobacco content. Whatever. If you are smoking in a public place, so is everyone else around you. There is no distant 'maybe' aspect to the infringement. Looking at some other social issues; you aren't running around to folks and throwing liquor down their throats. You can't find some anti-gay crusader at the bus stop, bend him over, and push your persuader (whatever THAT might be) up in there.

You do MAKE other people smoke when you are smoking in an enclosed space.

When the first inklings of increased smoking restriction started appearing in the 90s, I didn't give it all that much consideration. Then before the end of last century, California enacted a pretty comprehensive smoking BAN. In more recent times New York City has followed suit. Now the majority of states have some sort of ban. Most are not as comprehensive as that of NYC, but the political winds seem to indicate that eventually they will be. As this movement gained momentum over the last several years I was, on principle, generally opposed to almost all measures as infringements on personal liberty. But truthfully, most jurisdictions seemed to be banning smoking in non-adult workplaces, government offices, that sort of thing... and I could live with that because I wasn't a cigarette smoker and as long as I had a place I could go myself-- a bar typically, where I COULD light up a cigar-- who cares? I just shook my head at the gradual shutting down of smokers' rights as unfortunate but of little true impact to me.

Then as the bans started hitting closer to home (towns and cities nearby, my own town is still relatively smoker-friendly at present), I was confronted with the very real possibility of my indulgence being in danger. It's actually retarded to be unconcerned with political or social change until it arrives on your doorstep, but there you go. So I started looking into this a bit more. Most who feel a legislative injustice coming on not only view the immediate issue but also how it could affect future social regulation, ie 'what will they outlaw next'. I wasn't quite so paranoid, but with a certain amount of indignation in mind, I started looking into the debate for real.

Like the 'does life begin at conception' issue that has become the fulcrum of for morality debaters on abortion, passive smoking also has its grey area which pro and con advocates wrangle over. How bad is second-hand smoke REALLY? I've seen reports and propaganda. I've seen accusations of bias, bad data, junk science, and bribery. Personally, I've seen really variable data ranges for just how much of a cancer risk increase there actually is. It doesn't look like the numbers are hard factis. BUT. It just seems ludicrous to think there isn't some health risk to passive smoking, particularly from so-called sidestream smoke, the shit pouring off the cigarette while it sits in the ashtray or smoker's hand... the smoke you are breathing without even the benefit of a filter like the one the actual smoker is getting most of their smoke through. And even if you are getting one-millionth of a chance, an almost null statistic opportunity, to contract cancer... it is still an unpleasant, irritating, pollutant potentially exacerbating asthma or other pulmonary issues.

It is correct that non-smokers can choose to be somewhere else. It is also correct that it costs a lot of money to refit an establishment to allow smokers to have a place of their own either through subenclosures or ventilation upgrades. I'm not sure heavy-handed 'complete' bans are the right answer. I really bristle at that. Not just because I want a place to smoke a cigar, but I just don't like police-state-appearance bullshit. Who does really? Rabid anti-smokers will of course say this level of government involvement/interference is in the interest of public health, and they are right... BUT I still feel there needs to be some autonomy. Shouldn't restaurants, and particularly bars and casinoes be allowed to decide their policy on smoking? I know non-enclosed smoking areas don't really work (proven more or less), but there's always that nagging patron's choice aspect to consider. But what about the employee's choice? Is it just as simple to say THEY can just work somewhere else? The staff at these places are probably the real reason I'm weaker about this topic than other freedom-of-choice issues. A non-smoking bartender or server is continually breathing this stuff, so much more than a typical patron who stops in once or twice a week for a couple of hours.

I dunno. I'm conflicted about the issue now. I go back and forth in my opinion, mirroring the preceding paragraphs. I feel a little persecuted too, though. I just want to smoke the occasional cigar. I can't smoke them in my home, and the climate here doesn't allow outdoor smoking much of the year. Like the cigar companies themselves I feel kinda lumped in with the evil cigarette smokers/companies. I know that cigar smoke isn't better for you than cigarette smoke, but cigars are also such a tiny fraction of the problem. Why should I be paying the price for cigarette smokers' habit? Cigar companies are trying various legal means to get themselves excepted from some of this legislation. They can't get out of the bans, but they are having some success dodging increased taxes, so yay my cigar's prices aren't going up as much as cigarettes.

Other parts of the issue quickly: Smoking bans do have a positive effect on community medical services. Smoking bans do not appear to harm business in restaurants and bars as much as many had feared. This may be owing to non-smoker patronage now frequenting establishments they previously avoided, replacing the now-absent smoking customers. Obviously any business directly tied to the tobacco industry has been negatively impacted... though upscale tobacconists and the cigar and non-cigarette businesses have felt this minimally compared to so-called Big Tobacco.

I currently stand at a sort of middling-grey area, which I hate. I don't mind not having an opinion about an issue. I can back-burner even important issues if I feel I don't have enough information to decide. BUT in this instance, I have enough facts, I just can't come down firmly on one side or the other. To me, the answer is still not to have a federal solution. I think the states need to decide this one individually, and I'd prefer it to be something along lines that allow individual businesses to compromise. But I also dislike bureaucracy. Any solution short of a total ban is going to be complicated and more difficult to enforce. I am not in favor of creating more ways to commit a crime than we already have as it is... it'll really muddle things as people in each community try to figure out just what their law is and how to comply (or defy). And more bureaucracy means more money needed to run it.

I'm on some mailing list for a cigar advocacy group. Its kind of a weird conscience thing, like going to a church whose dogma you don't believe in. Especially when these advocates use some of Big Tobacco's propaganda. Cigar smokers are obviously in a different place than cigarette smokers when it comes to day-to-day realities, but they will get lumped in any smoking ban, understandably. The things generate smoke! But I think they should distance themselves from cigarette companies in EVERY way possible. It is still dismaying to read the cigar guys using discredited or biased old 'studies' that Big Tobacco used to further their claims. Ugh.

I'm just hoping to still be able to buy my stogies and find a decent place to fire 'em up. But I'm not finding it so easy to justify it as my RIGHT. I prefer the easier to figure out, non-debatable topics... like abortion.

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