Columns » Max Brantley

Will the minority rule?

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I’m a reformed smoker. I understand the addiction.

The hardest week of my life was those seven days in 1974 when I first put my Marlboros down. The hardest of all was day five, a white-knuckle drive through a snowstorm from Hot Springs to Little Rock, a pack of cigarettes beckoning in the glove box.

Both my parents smoked and died from cigarette-related ailments. I remember my father reaching for his shirt pocket and a cigarette in an ICU in Louisiana after a cerebral hemorrhage. “I never go anywhere without cigarettes,” he said in his brain fog. My mother, whose smoking began, like so many others, during her war years in India, was hooked until her last days in a nursing home (chosen in part for its accommodation of smokers). Six years after her death, on humid days, the tobacco funk in her old car still recalls her habit.

But if I understand the addiction and, yes, the pleasure of smoking, I don’t understand why an ever smaller percentage of the population is able to force its habit on others.

We don’t allow industries to belch noxious fumes on neighbors. We don’t allow people to dump hazardous wastes on the floors of restaurants or offices. But the government allows smokers to subject non-smokers to health-damaging emissions in the name of smokers’ “rights.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee, to his credit, finally came around on this issue. He’d been resistant to smoking bans (though not resistant to political contributions from tobacco companies). But the science and public sentiment brought him over. He’s become the leading proponent of legislation to ban smoking in the workplace in Arkansas. An overwhelming majority favors such legislation. No wonder. Nearly 80 percent of the adults in the country don’t smoke.

As I write, the status of this legislation is uncertain. It’s expected to face a fight. The tobacco companies will fight, naturally. The so-called “hospitality industry” will fight. This is the real mystery. Why does an industry that depends on creating a welcoming environment insist on allowing the pollution of that environment to please one customer out of every five?

I’m mystified, too, that city officials in Little Rock have been so timid about this issue. They desperately hope that a statewide ban will save them from a tough decision. Again, they fear the 20 percent. Little Rock officials have been quoted as saying a smoking ordinance would drive bar business to North Little Rock. Forget for a minute puzzling out why North Little Rock would be proud to be known as an oasis for carcinogens. Instead ponder whether some of the 80 percent might do as we do — avoid restaurants where a hamburger all the way includes a side of tobacco smoke.

We’re sorry the governor’s bill includes a smoking exemption for places that don’t allow employees or customers younger than 21. But that’s at least easier to enforce than an exemption tied to food service. The Fayetteville anti-smoking ordinance has become a loophole war. If you cook food, you can’t have smoking, the city says. But if you don’t cook food, you can’t have a liquor license.

New York, Florida and California, to name a few, have statewide smoking bans. They seem to be prospering. Why must Arkansas be held hostage to second-hand smoke by the tyranny of 20 percent of the adult population?


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