Contrarian: A Burning Question

What’s the smoking ban in bars really about?

Finally, on the fourth try, Philadelphia City Council passed a smoking ban in bars and restaurants that went into effect in September. The fourth try, after six years of debate. The issue of whether or not Philadelphia’s partyers went home with smelly clothes was of such high priority that it was discussed ad nauseam and put up for a vote on four occasions, and had it not recently passed, there would surely have been fifth, sixth and seventh attempts. The cultural inferiority complex we have developed from having less unnecessary legislation than Boston and New York finally got the better of us, and progress was made. Giddy with success, Council recently amended the bill — now the air of sidewalk cafés will be smoke-free, too.

But I know everyone wants a smoker’s opinion, so I’ll tell you what I think: This sucks. And it says a lot about where we’re heading, both as a city and a society. That our City Council takes time out to debate this issue when we are averaging over a homicide a day, when streets are falling apart, when schools are graduating illiterate students, is bad enough. But what really sticks in my craw is that patina of self-righteousness that amounts to little more than social bullying. Floating in a sea of crap, City Council has reached over the side of the lifeboat and found one particularly odiferous turd it is going to do something about.

Bans on restaurant smoking now cover more than half of the U.S. population, with bar bans quickly catching up, and the debates that precede them follow a pattern. On one side, you have people who think smoking is gross. They never say that, though. Instead they talk about secondhand smoke as if it’s sarin gas, and make hay out of terms like “employee livelihood” and “quality of life.” They try to mention children a lot. By the time they’re finished stating their case, one usually has the impression that smoking in a bar or restaurant is akin to gassing five-year-olds. This side always wins the argument, because of the constantly improving political climate for all health legislation, a condition that has in turn been sparked by the constantly rising cost of health care. This enables them to introduce anti-smoking legislation again and again, as they did here in Philadelphia, just waiting for the stars to align.

Of course, the losing side of the debate is just as hypocritical and absurd, made up as it is of a ragtag bunch of Libertarians, smokers’-rights advocates and the smokers themselves. You know ­Libertarians — they’re the mutated political freaks spliced from the genes of old-school Republicans (small government, conservative spending) and hippie Democrats (no death penalty, legalized drugs) and then sprinkled with crazy (we should be allowed to fire off guns in our backyard). Libertarians think that laws are a form of repression, and we should have as few as possible. Libertarians are right about everything but nobody cares, and they get ignored every election cycle. To get a mental picture of a Libertarian, think of an Alaskan living in the wilderness. Not a tough, macho, bear-hunting Alaskan, but an Alaskan who’d rather sit in a log cabin and write letters to his congressman about Alaskan tax policy than go outside into the freezing cold. That’s a Libertarian, and they don’t approve of the smoking ban on principle.

Next, consider the smokers’-rights advocates. Never mind that smokers are voluntarily killing ourselves — we still have advocates. These groups run websites with headlines that say things like “Fox Lake says NO ban, embraces smokers!” ( or make reference to “Antismokers’ pseudoscientific propaganda tricks” (Pennsylvania Smokers Action Network). They have catchy names like Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH) and YESSIR (YES Smoking In Restaurants), and I believe they are all, every last one of them, even the ones that vehemently deny they are, funded by the tobacco companies.

Why do I believe this? Oh, gimme a break! Who the hell else would take the time to create and update websites vaguely suggesting that nicotine addiction is a sign of strong-minded independence, or that the act of smoking is reminiscent of the pioneer spirit, like a frontiersman in the Alaskan wilderness? (Only not the type of Alaskan frontiersman that goes out and hunts bears. More the type that sits in a cabin and smokes.)

Most smokers’ advocacy groups have had, historically, trouble getting actual unpaid members, because the “rights issues” concerning $100 a month paid to a huge corporation to give yourself emphysema really don’t bring out the proud rebel in the average citizen. But these groups still try. And they magnify every innocuous aspect of the tobacco industry — claiming pity for broke tobacco farmers and their families, waxing eloquent about the thousands of jobs created by the manufacture and transport of tobacco products — in an effort to make smoking appear less socially ­undesirable.

Those are the smokers’-rights advocates, who oppose the smoking ban because it costs them money in lowered tobacco sales and, ostensibly, because it marginalizes smokers.

Then there are us, the smokers. I know I don’t give a crap about being marginalized or having my rights trod on. To a smoker, smoking isn’t a political issue. No smoker who has woken up in a small town where all the stores are closed on a Sunday morning and realized he smoked his last cigarette at the bar the night before is thinking about politics. He’s thinking about punching strangers in the face if he doesn’t get a nicotine fix. Why? Because we are addicted to a powerful drug, and we all know it. I don’t know any smokers who are fiercely proud of their right to smoke. I just know a lot of smokers like myself, people who haven’t summoned the nerve to quit yet. We’re going to, though. Real soon. Soon as the Eagles win the Super Bowl.

That’s us, the smokers. We’re a sorry lot.

To me, though, the reason the smoking ban sucks goes beyond all the absurd agendas; it’s more ethereal and romantic. Banning smoking in bars and restaurants tells people how they can relax. Bars and restaurants evolved from taverns, places people went to forget about rules and bans and problems; there have to be places where we can just be ourselves, where the focus is on relaxation rather than rules.

Years ago, when I was in the Army, I went to a high-end corporate strip club, and in the entrance was a huge sign describing all the possible reasons I could be ejected by force. Inside, the bouncers outnumbered the girls. My friends and I left without spending any money, because more than anything, it was the oppressive presence of authority we had gone there to escape.

With the passing of the smoking ban, it seems that more and more, the Philadelphia bar scene is becoming like that strip club. I have no problem with smoking bans in the workplace (sorry — at bars, breathing smoky air is a built-in tip tax), or in stores, or on public transportation. But passing laws on how people behave when they’re relaxing crosses a line that our culture is finding it harder and harder to even see. The message is, Go ahead, take a break, but we’ll still be watching you. What’s next, banning drinking in bars? As I recall, we tried that once, a long time ago.

Iain Levison is the author of several books, including Since the Layoffs and A Working Stiff’s Manifesto.