Point Austin: Smoke This!

Austin voters have a chance to confirm that everybody has a right to breathe free

Point Austin
I'm typing this column in a smoke-free workplace. If Chronicle staffers want to smoke, and some do, they take a break, walk out the back door, and puff away at will – a little more uncomfortable in August or January, but it's their habit, their choice. When they smoke, the rest of us don't have to. There's an occasional fuss, I guess, when the weather is fine enough to open the windows, but otherwise the arrangement seems adequate. Despite all the election-generated noise, quite a bit of it reproduced in our pages this week, it's taken for granted around here that everybody has a right to breathe clean air – not that smokers have a right to pollute at will their immediate airspace and that of their neighbors.

But at fiftysomething I'm one of the geezers around here, and old enough to remember when the opposite was true, and taking a job in virtually any workplace meant that you were required to inhale tobacco smoke as a matter of course – even if only one of your co-workers was a habitual smoker. Despite all the hysteria about "prohibition," it's still pretty common. Thanks to both legal and cultural progress over the last 20 years, about one-third of U.S. communities enjoy some form of smoke-free public policy, leaving plenty of work to the next generation of air-breathers.

It's in that context that I consider the proposed smoking ordinance appearing on Austin's May 7 ballot. Just as Chronicle employees enjoy a natural (and legally protected) right to a smoke-free workplace, so do workers in every other place of business – yes, even in those bowling alleys, billiard parlors, and sacred "live music venues" where smokers persist in believing they have a divinely granted right to fill the air, and everybody else's lungs and persons, with literally toxic fumes. And despite all the owners' protestations of helplessness, the barely veiled threat to "jobs," should the ordinance pass, is different only in degree from Rockdale's Alcoa aluminum plant threatening its workers' livelihoods should the company be forced to obey the law and stop polluting the Central Texas air. Deal with it.

One Man's Freedom

I'm not so naive to insist that every single music club (or neighborhood bar) will certainly survive the transition, nor so callous to be indifferent to the consequences. But I also find it remarkable that so many smokers say they support "live music" but haven't a thought to spare for live musicians, who are expected to sign up for a lifetime of environmental tobacco smoke – i.e., heavy smoking – because they want to play the guitar for a living. More than one Chronicle reporter has learned again this week that some of those musicians are also afraid to speak out in favor of the smoking ban for fear of retaliation from club owners.

And why on earth should a love for new music be inexorably and institutionally chained to a nicotine jones, so that, as the club owners would have it, Austinites literally can't have one without the other? If a ban does nothing else, it might serve to help separate a generation of young people from a tobacco-industry-manufactured symbiosis between creative youth culture and the pseudo-rebellion of smoking, as transparently phony as a Coors beer ad. Much has been rightly charged about the puritanism of some smoking opponents, but for every self-righteous nonsmoker, there is a smoker who believes he is "free" to light up anytime, anywhere, and to use the entire surface of the earth as his personal ashtray. The rest of us are supposed to shrug and chalk it up to "personal freedom." Yet if there is a libertarian principle in all this, it is the classic one that my freedom to extend my fist – or my smoke – stops at this side of the other man's nose.

What's at Stake?

No doubt the rhetoric on both sides of the debate has already gotten overheated, and it would certainly be helpful if the various spokespeople stopped attributing sinister motives to their opponents. There's an argument to be made that ban supporters should have spent more time and effort on public education before going to the voters, if only to avoid more polarization than necessary over an emotional issue (and help their cause in the bargain). By the same token, it is astonishing to hear ban opponents, in 2005, attempting with a straight face to pretend that the dangers of secondhand smoke have not been scientifically demonstrated – a battle that Big Tobacco lost, by a knockout (not to mention its own secret research), more than a generation ago. To cite only the most dramatic numbers, according to the American Lung Association, "Secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 heart disease deaths in adult nonsmokers in the United States each year." Those folks don't "choose" to ignore the risks of smoking – they are victims of a laissez-faire social policy every bit as deadly as the state of Texas' refusal to do anything serious about controlling industrial air pollution in Houston.

That is what's at stake in the debate over the smoking ban, and it's a reality that won't be wished away by talk of "lifestyle choices" or, even more absurdly, "property rights." When Austin voters go to the polls on May 7, they can choose to extend to one more group of workers – including professional musicians – the simple right to clean air that the rest of us take for granted in our places of employment, and at the same time to liberate some important, public, cultural space.

It's not the end of the world, and it doesn't seem too much to ask. end story

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smoking ordinance, smoking ban, secondhand smoke, American Lung Association

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