Walter Pierce

RE: The Burning Question

by Walter Pierce

Should smoking be banned at bars in Lafayette? This smoker says yes.

I smoke cigarettes. Roll-your-own cigarettes. I am accustomed to huddling near dumpsters and dodging rain to satisfy my nicotine addiction.

Should smoking be banned at bars in Lafayette?
This smoker says yes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Written by Walter Pierce

I smoke cigarettes. Roll-your-own cigarettes. I am accustomed to huddling near dumpsters and dodging rain to satisfy my nicotine addiction. Because that's what it is - a chemical addiction, midwifed by a dying myth of sophistication embedded in my psyche by mass media. I have surely trimmed a decade off my life, although I've rationalized it by telling myself I've shorn off the geriatric years of aching joints, uncomely pustules, incontinence and loved ones dying around me. I'm curing myself of the loneliness and despair of old age. If I could quit smoking and get my 20s back, I'd kick the habit fast.

Yet I'm astonished that our community is debating banning smoking in its last public, indoor bastion: bars. There is no debate. Ban it. Yesterday.

I don't go to bars often, but I had the good fortune of patronizing a local dive a couple of weeks ago where live music is performed and the customers smoke like a sailor fresh on shore. By "good" fortune I mean sucky. I typically step outside for a smoke when I'm at a bar, even smoker-friendly bars. At this place I didn't need to: there was enough nico-haze to satisfy my fix - a miasma that burned my eyes and lungs. I'm not exaggerating.

At a forum last week at City Hall, supporters and opponents of a smoking ban at bars made their case. Opponents of a ban marched along the well-worn path of choice and individual rights. An attorney hired by local bar owners - a smart, elegant-thinking gentleman whom I've met and respect - argued, "I want my individual choice respected, and I think that's the fundamental argument. Where does it stop? Are you ready for legislation that prevents you from smoking in your backyard?"

Hyperbole methinks. Where does it stop? It stops at bars, which along with casinos in Louisiana are virtually the only places of business where smoking is allowed indoors. These are places where the public gathers.

(As an aside, I have to wonder whether the bar owners would be lawyering up if they weren't anticipating some type of legislative action on this issue? There may be more going on behind the scenes than the participants are acknowledging.)

The argument that bar employees including musicians, especially musicians, should simply "choose" to work elsewhere is a stretch, too. Musician/songwriter David Egan, who writes a music column for this newspaper and is a stand-up guy who battled lung cancer, made an indisputable point at the forum: this isn't a matter of choice for him; musicians go where the work is, and in South Louisiana that work is most often in bars.

My right to smoke in a bar - or anywhere for that matter; why not a day care or hospital? - is also my "right" to subject people around me to something that causes cancer. To help them get sick.

Second-hand smoke is listed as a "known human carcinogen" by the EPA and other reputable groups run by scientists, physicians and people who know a lot of stuff. Second-hand smoke causes cancer. This seems simple.

The American Cancer Society classifies second-hand tobacco smoke in two categories: sidestream and mainstream. The former is the smoke that burns from the end of a cigar or cigarette. It's much more chemically potent than mainstream smoke - what we smokers exhale - because many of those deadly chemicals are absorbed by the smoker. (You're welcome.) But their combined effect is undeniably dangerous, especially for bar employees who are subjected to second-hand smoke for hours on end.

Government has a role in ensuring public health and safety. A vital role. Business long ago proved itself more than willing to jeopardize employee health to make or save a buck, especially in low-skill industries where workers are expendable. Construction didn't self-regulate its use of asbestos and lead paint; the government had to do it. Had it not, construction workers would have been left to "choose" another line of work and consumers to "choose" what their cookie-cutter ranch houses are made of. My apologies for ending that last sentence in a preposition, and for this one being incomplete.

We smokers, most of us anyway, are accustomed to being marginalized, to stepping outside for a puff. We can handle it at bars. We're ready.

Lafayette has a choice all right. I hope we make the right one.