The first time I heard about the proposed smoking ban in Charleston I was working on a construction site in Goose Creek alongside a block mason, whose continuous brick cutting filled the air, my nostrils, and my lungs with a thick cloud of concrete dust. I fetched a mask, which helped a little, as I continued to listen to the man on the radio insist that an indoor smoking ban was necessary to protect workers and customers. It wasn't a pleasant job, and it probably wasn't healthy, but I agreed to do the job at hand, hazards and all.
Kevin Young has been a bartender at A.C.'s Bar & Grill on King Street for over a decade. He is a non-smoker who has worked in a smoking environment for most of his adult life, until now. Since the smoking ban went into effect, Young has consistently worked eight hours longer than he used to each week and earns roughly $200 dollars less each week. Visiting my friend Kevin at work in the early evening is much easier these days, because the ban has literally cut his bread-and-butter happy-hour shift in half. He says, "Bring back the smokers."
His boss agrees. Says A.C.'s owner Jim Curley, "Profits in 2007 were down 80 percent compared to 2006, and that's with the smoking ban being in effect for only half a year." Jim admits there are other factors for the loss, but the smoking ban is unquestionably the "primary factor."
That customers or employees might be exposed to secondhand smoke as a result of their personal decision to patronize or work at a place where smoking is allowed should seem like a trivial consideration when compared to the much more serious financial risk — and loss — suffered by bartenders and bar owners. After all, Jim's family depends on the success of his bar, and Kevin's livelihood depends on the success of A.C.'s. By what rationale should the government (particularly local officials who would probably never frequent places like A.C.'s anyway) have the right to harm the way these men earn a living by restricting the use of a legal product?
The only difference between my experience with concrete dust on a construction site and secondhand smoke in bars and restaurants is that most people don't frequent construction sites. Most people go to bars and restaurants, and they hate smoke — on their clothes, in their hair, or in their personal space. The Charleston smoking ban, and indeed all smoking bans, are first and foremost a reflection of popular prejudice, even though there's a lot of chatter about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Frankly speaking, more than a few experts agree that former Surgeon General Richard Carmona's contention that exposure to secondhand smoke is as damaging as inhaling a pack-a-day ranks right up there with President Bush's assertion that Saddam Hussein had WMDs.
The latest decision by the state Supreme Court to uphold local smoking bans does not end debate on the real issue at hand — the power and scope of government. Having a "smoke-free Lowcountry" certainly doesn't come free for everyone, as some employees and business owners continue to pay the price in lost wages and lost profits simply to satisfy the prejudice of the non-smoking majority.
While I do enjoy cigars, I can't stand being around ashtrays while I'm eating and quickly become aggravated by friends who smoke, but I would never think of using the power of government to pacify my anti-smoking prejudices — damaging individual liberty, property rights, and livelihoods in the process — just so that I might be a bit more comfortable.
As I write this commentary, I've actually been sitting in A.C.'s, simultaneously gabbing with Kevin behind the bar who has had only one other customer for the last hour — and that customer just went outside to smoke. It wouldn't have bothered Kevin or me in the least if he had remained in the bar to enjoy his cigarette, but the government has already made that decision for us. As a grown man, it's a bit offensive. As an American, it's a little disheartening. And as a citizen, it's ridiculous.
There was a time in this country when most Americans would have agreed, even those who hated smoking, believing that government should have reasonable limits. But in an increasingly unreasonable world, such arbitrary power promises to become increasingly limitless, undermining and overtaking even the most basic American notions of property and principle.
In the end, it seems America's worst habit has become the mass acceptance of bad government in the name of good intentions — the proverbial path to hell.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.