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Our 'rights' can be lost in many ways, one of which is to chip away at them because of health, community, decency, moral, and/or ethical standards

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This column is for my liberal friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances, employees, total strangers and, ah ... hemmmm, my wife (with all due respect and a complete understanding of how wrong on this issue I am), all who turned out to be much more vehemently against smoking and in favor of a smoking ban than I realized. Enthusiastically, they educated me as to their discontents.

The arguments in favor of the ban are largely health-based. Being in an environment where there is secondhand smoke is unhealthy for nonsmokers and for other smokers. This creates a workplace hazard and a health hazard for customers. Areas where smoking is allowed in our society should be as restricted as they can be, in order to protect the health and quality of life of the nonsmokers. Tobacco is bad for our citizens and is addictive. The tobacco companies, through advertising strategies, have lured folks into becoming addicted. Also, since the compromise legislation was passed, the 200 places where smoking is allowed have an unfair business advantage.

The argument against the ban centers on the idea that smoking is central to the economic viability and continued existence of many live-music clubs. This community brags on music but only makes the lives of those responsible for nurturing and presenting it more difficult. It would just be too Austin-business-as-usual to agree to the current smoking restrictions and, before even giving them a chance to have any effect, institute a complete ban.

Above I mentioned neither smokers' nor nonsmokers' rights. In general, bringing "rights" into this discussion has been discouraged and discredited. It's really not about rights, the argument goes; it's about health and safety. Furthermore, if it is about "rights," well, smokers' rights are equaled by nonsmokers' rights, and there are more nonsmokers.

Excluding "rights" from this dialogue is outrageous. Jean Renoir once said, "The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons." The ongoing political debate in America is not between good guys and bad guys. Overwhelmingly, it is among citizens who are convinced what they are doing is in the best interests of the country. Almost each and every one of them is convinced that they are as right as you and I are convinced we are right.

Our "rights" can be lost in many ways, one of which is to chip away at them because of health, community, decency, moral, and/or ethical standards. The dimensions and exact structure of rights change over time. Our rights in the early part of the century, when there was barely a national telephone network, were different than they were at the end of the century, when the world was wired. They've had to go through fine detailing and philosophical reshaping within the guidelines of certain accepted principles.

What exactly are a nonsmoker's rights? To go to any place they want at any time without feeling that their health is threatened? There are certainly health and comfort considerations in regard to nonsmokers. You can argue health and welfare or even common decency and consideration. But can anyone cite a source, either constitutional, legal, or through common acceptance, that privileges nonsmokers' concerns over smokers', guaranteeing nonsmokers or any group of citizens to have any establishment they enter address their health concerns? It may make sense, it may even be right; it's certainly healthier – but nowhere are American citizens guaranteed (or is it even suggested that they have) the right to see the band they want to see, where they want to see it, under the conditions they want. This is not businesses turning away people because of their race, ethnicity, or sexual preference; this is about people deciding not to go to a business because they don't like its policies. Now, they've decided the solution is to legally force those businesses to change their policies.

This is the part especially for the liberals (sure, I'm talking about tobacco here, but for just a moment, think about it in the abstract).

Let's take a substance and call it "Y," but you all know what I really mean.

Imagine that for decades and decades this substance Y was completely accepted and widely used throughout society, at all social and economic levels. Over time, a minority view that Y was dangerous became widespread and adopted as scientific fact.

The information of how deadly Y was spread throughout the land, was noted on every package of Y sold in any form, taught in the schools and constantly pointed out in the media, by both ads and news items. The industry became more heavily regulated, as well as paying out hundreds of billions of dollars. How dangerous Y was has to have been considered public knowledge for, at the very least, two decades.

The society outlawed Y in all public places. But, despite the warnings, the classes, the talks, and the education, people continued to use Y. Many were concerned about Y's secondhand health threat to the nonusing public. Some wanted to totally ban Y because of these concerns. When education didn't work quickly enough, they turned to restricting the public and legal use of Y as much as possible, singling out and embarrassing Y users because of this personal habit and trying to so stigmatize them that everyone would stop using. This was all being done for the good of the community.

The community then went on to pass severe restrictions on Y use in any public establishment. Shortly after those restrictions were imposed, the community again reversed itself, considering a complete ban.

Okay, say the Y users got together. They asked the city if, out of the thousands of bars and restaurants, they could use Y in only 200. Those 200 would be licensed by the city, clearly post their policy, and pay the city a fee for the license.

Keep in mind that Y use is legal. It is a personal habit. Also, Y use may not excite, but neither does it offend or violate community or religious standards, unlike a sex business. There may be issues about a bar, but whether it allows Y is hardly germane.

Okay my liberal brethren, the Y users want 200 clearly marked, clearly legal, very specifically not Y-free establishments. There is a community movement by the majority not to allow this.

Why? Well, there are the community's overall health concerns. There is taking one's neighbors' health into one's own hands. Then there are workplace health concerns for employees and performers.

But, friends, what is the single most cited reason? If a non-Y-user decides that what is going on in a Y-use establishment is of interest to them, they want to be able to attend in an environment that they personally prefer. Changing the overwhelming number of local businesses to non-Y use is not enough. They want it to be imposed everywhere.

Okay, let's switch to the term "smoking." No one is made to go to clubs where there is smoking.

The concern over employees and performers is legitimate; it's a lot easier to say, "If you don't like smoke, don't work here" than it is to find a job or build a music career.

But this smoking ban is about the society saying to smokers, again legal and moral, that they can have no public place where they can indulge their vice, because nonsmokers may want to attend.

When you think about it, chipping away "rights" for rock-solid health and/or moral concerns can be an indication of a socially conscious and concerned community or a barely visible baby step away from our "rights" as long defined in this constitutional republic. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin smoking ban, Austin anti-smoking, Austin music, Austin bars, Austin clubs, individual rights, smokers' rights, nonsmokers' rights, public health

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