Savannah implements a smoking ban

In my Tuesday Savannah Morning News column this week, Smoking ban comes at tough time, I discuss some of the issues and challenges as the city implements a new smoking ban. The ban affects a variety of different establishments, but by far the biggest effect will be on the city’s bars.

I’m in favor of the smoking ban, but am, as I say in the column, “concerned about inevitable problems with noise, litter and sidewalk congestion. Front doors will swing open more often; bar patrons will chatter noisily on sidewalks; butts will end up in the streets.” We need some reasonable civic responses to those that encourage our nightlife scene rather than hinder it.

I understand all the opponents’ arguments, but none of them add up to me. And please don’t assume that I don’t enjoy bars and want to spoil others’ fun. Probably on average about three nights/week I’m at either American Legion Post #135 or The Jinx, two of the city’s bars with the smokiest reputations.

I’ll quickly tackle some three of the more prominent arguments:

1. No, smoking and drinking are not equivalent activities, so there’s zero logic to saying that smoking bans must lead to drinking bans. The cigarette may be the only legal product in the U.S. that, if used as recommended, has been proven to cause severe illness and shorten life. I don’t want to downplay the risks to drinking, but studies pretty consistently show little negative effect to moderate drinking; some studies have even shown health benefits to moderate alcohol consumption. Regardless, if I’m drinking, that does not affect the person next to me, as cigarette smoking obviously does.

2. The nanny-state argument carries a little more weight, I think. Why not let bars decide on their own to ban smoking, as some already have done? Bartenders and patrons know the risks, so why should the government intrude? These are compelling ideological questions, but then why not follow that logic and make other arguments: lower the drinking age, get rid of our 3 a.m. closing time, allow bars to stay open on Sunday, etc., etc., etc. I’m in favor of a number of those moves, by the way. Some may see a creeping nanny-state in all this, but at the same time I think we’re seeing unparalleled freedoms. Just look at issues involving gay rights, or access to information or publishing tools (like this blog) via the internet. We might be seeing government intrusion into some new areas of public and private life, but at the same time we’re seeing just the opposite happening. It’s an interesting tension, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

3. The advocates of extreme individual freedom (of which I am one) are wrong, I think, to see the smoking ban as an assault. Given the proven dangers of smoke to everyone in the vicinity, the individual freedom argument begins to break down. Why should a smoker’s rights trump a non-smoker’s? And I can’t get past one key contradiction: opponents of smoking bans like ours often pose as anti-establishment rebels while at the same time supporting with their $$$$s huge corporations with long histories of manipulative practices.

As I note in my column, “I’ll miss the nostalgic grins of out-of-town visitors when they first walk into Savannah’s smoky barrooms, but I sure won’t miss all that smoke.”

Already, I’ve talked with one friend who frequently hangs out in bars who is now actively trying to quit smoking entirely. I’ve talked to several musicians excited about singing in smoke-free environments. I know many non-smokers who basically refuse to go to the bars where I spend most of my time.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

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