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Smoking and Tolerance

Wednesday, July 22, 2003

I don't like smoking. But I don't like smoking bans either. I'd like to make the case against the smoking ban based on tolerance of other people's lifestyles.

Cambridge will institute a smoking ban in all restaurants and bars on October 1st. The City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the ban in June. Somerville followed suit, and Boston, Watertown, and several dozen other Massachusetts municipalities already have smoking bans in place. The state legislature considered (but didn't pass) a statewide ban this session, and will likely reconsider a similar ban next year.

Arguments on both sides focused on economics. Vice Mayor Davis, speaking for the ban, said, "We have to keep tobacco from breaking the bank of the health care system." Arguments against the ban often focus on restaurants and bars losing business to other areas without bans (the basis for Somerville basing their ban on Cambridge doing so first). City Councilor Toomey voted against the city ban but stated his support for a statewide ban, on those grounds. City Councilor Reeves pointed out that evening bar and restaurant business has been dramatically cut in municipalities with a smoking ban.

I don't think the economic arguments get at the real issue. Some City Councilors argued for a ban on grounds of health - but everyone is aware nowadays that smoking is bad for one's health. The valid health argument is about second-hand smoke and whether restaurant staff should be subject to it.

City Councilor Decker argued that she had to work as a waitress in a smoke-filled bar to pay her bills. The best argument in favor of a smoking ban is that non-smoking employees at restaurants and bars would be removed from the health hazard of second-hand smoke. But Decker's waitress days - many years ago when she was in college - were back when smoking was permitted everywhere, and that has changed. When I go to smoking bars - admittedly, not often, since I really don't like smoke - I see that the staff are usually also smokers, and hence the second-hand smoke issue doesn't apply to them.

Hence the real issue becomes whether society should tolerate people smoking at all. Cambridge is supposed to be a tolerant community - we tolerate alternative lifestyles, religious and racial differences, and all sorts of odd behavior, and that's what makes Cambridge a great place to live. We should not ban smoking ban if we're saying "You shouldn't smoke" or "Smoking is bad for you" - that's the definition of intolerance, telling other people what to do. I see that as the real core of the arguments for a smoking ban, and oppose it on that basis.

Some people will respond, "What about bartenders who don't smoke and can't get work except at smoking bars?" As long as Cambridge has a mix of smoking and non-smoking establishments, people could find employment at the ones they prefer. I would support a publicly funded employee relocation assistance program to assist staff in moving from smoking to non-smoking establishments for any employees who ask for it. I also support a smoking ban in all other workplaces, because changing jobs is too difficult for too many people - but I make an exception for bars and restaurants as public establishments whose employees need special rules.

To tolerate smoking while still respecting the desires of non-smokers, we need a mix of smoking and non-smoking bars and restaurants in Cambridge. That could be established by the City Council instituting "smoking licenses" like the city now issues for "liquor licenses." The City Council could limit the number of smoking licenses to a number they deem reasonable - say, a half or a quarter of all bars and restaurants in Cambridge. That system is pretty much how Cambridge works now, but the number of establishments would be regulated by the city-issued licenses. A smoking bar could advertise its status with a smiling cigarette logo on its door, and non-smokers would stay away from those and would patronize only non-smoking establishments - and vice-versa for smokers - that's tolerance.

Issuing licenses in limited numbers could also raise some revenue to be used for the employee relocation assistance. The amount of money would be small (perhaps 50 bars and restaurants would purchase licenses under the plan above) but the number of people requesting relocation would likely be small also. The licenses could be auctioned to bidders from the bars and restaurants, to avoid political involvement and to maximize revenues.

I respect the needs of non-smokers and respect their desire to see smoking reduced. But I also respect smokers' desire to meet in public and smoke with others who also want to smoke. Tolerance means respecting both those groups - let's come up with a system based on tolerance.

* * *

Jesse Gordon is a founding member of People for Livable Cambridge, who will have their initial meeting on Sunday, July 27, 11 AM, at 175 Harvey Street. See www.LivableCambridge.org for details.

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