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Smoke-free bars mask cowardice

Peter Wicks | Thursday, November 20, 2003

Whenever I am back in England, one of my favorite ways to spend an evening is to go to a public house called the Duke of Cumberland. Even by English standards, it is an old pub. People have drunk there since before the Reformation. They serve excellent food and a good range of beers, and one of my favorite pleasures is to meet an old friend there and exchange our news over cigars.Cigar smoking is a minority pasttime and I have found that one of its few disadvantages is that, whenever I smoke in public, a stranger will invariably approach me and ask me how old I am. The question is usually asked in such a way as to imply that, at my age, my leisure time should be given over to cannabis, extreme sports and ill-considered sexual encounters; the stogies should wait until I’m in my 50s and CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It’s certainly true that most cigar smokers are older men, but in my experience the old are not only wiser than the young, they also have better taste in vices.People who have never smoked one often view cigars as a sort of luxury cigarette, but a good cigar is much more than that. As I write this, I have on my desk a particularly fine Davidoff – hecho a mano in the Dominican Republic – which I plan to smoke upon this column’s completion. It wouldn’t make Castro’s collection, but it is a fine cigar. How fine? Well, let’s put it this way: It came with a warranty.Sometimes, Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. Well, sometimes. But in this particular case, the cigar in question is quite obviously a phallic symbol, like a Porsche or a totem pole, the later of which it closely resembles in scale. It will take more than an hour to smoke. Should the need arise, it could be used quite effectively in hand-to-hand combat.I rarely smoke more than twice a month, but since I came to this country three years ago, I have been watching with some dismay the trend toward banning smoking in bars, part of a larger cultural shift in opinion to the point which, as David Brooks has put it, smoking is now considered a worse sin than at least five of the Ten Commandments. Five strikes me as a conservative estimate. To be sure, this hostility is most pronounced amongst members of the upper middle class, but since that is the class that is most influential in forming public opinion, the trend is sure to continue.Smoking is one alternative lifestyle toward which Notre Dame is proud to trumpet its opposition. If the University’s figures are to be believed, the amount of students who smoke regularly is approximately a quarter of the average for Americans of college age. The rumors of plans to make the University smoke-free in the near future have been denied, but it is noteworthy that the rumors were even plausible.Of course smoking is unhealthy. Everyone knows that. Indeed, over the last 20 years the educational establishment has largely abandoned the idea of teaching students mathematics or literature, and now sees the primary objective of education as making sure that nobody smokes and everybody uses condoms.I’m not against smoke-free bars. Although I smoke occasionally, I appreciate the desire to drink and socialize in a smoke-free environment. But I am against legislation which forces bars to be no-smoking zones, which has been introduced in California and, more recently, New York.But the question to ask is not why people want smoke-free bars. The question is why – when there are sports bars, singles bars, gay bars, Irish bars and any number of other types of bar – there aren’t smoke-free bars already. After all, if there was really a demand for them, market forces would have provided numerous smoke-free bars already.Now, some people only have to hear the phrase “market forces” to dismiss the speaker as a free-market ideologue who doubtless spends his days meditating on passages from “The Road to Serfdom” and kisses a poster of Ayn Rand before going to sleep each night. But this isn’t ideology. The only assumption involved is that bar owners want to make a profit. And if so many people really want to drink without breathing second-hand smoke, then why has nobody opened a bar to cater to them?The answer, I think, must be that what many people want is not simply the ability to drink in a smoke-free social space. What they want is the ability to drink in a smoke-free space without taking any personal responsibility for the fact that their friends can’t smoke. I think that represents a kind of cowardice, and the result of that cowardice is that that all sorts of possible compromises – such as offering a discount on the license fee for bar owners who go smoke-free – are passed over in favor of blanket legislation.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.