Pittsburgh's reputation goes briefly up in smoke

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Readers of this column may know my definition of a liberal: A person who believes that consenting adults may have any sort of sex they like but shouldn't be allowed a cigarette afterwards.

For equal-time purposes, my definition of a conservative is this: A person who has his underwear perpetually in a bunch but blames the laundry for the situation. (Conservatives don't actually have to smoke cigarettes because they have a talent for fuming on their own.)

But it is the progressive impulse to ban tobacco use that is very much on my mind today. At the stroke of midnight on May 1, Pittsburgh and the rest of Allegheny County briefly became smoke-free, which is quite a thing for the so-called Smoky City. The reputation of this old shot-and-beer town went up in smoke, or the lack thereof.

Commonwealth Court soon put the ban on hold in order to hear an appeal but the writing is on the wall for the nicotine-stained wretches, if not now, eventually. The writing says: Butt out.

What locals who have been rending their smoke-filled garments and gnashing their yellowed teeth need to understand is that the great smoke-free revolution is the way of the world. New York banned smoking four years ago. Irish pubs went smoke-free three years ago (the ban was extended to Northern Ireland in the last few days).

The day will come when a firing squad won't give you the traditional cigarette because it's bad for your health. The Prince of Darkness (not Dick Cheney) will declare Hell smoke-free so that smokers can suffer this eternal torment to supplement the usual ones -- public television fund drives, elevator conversation, Rush Limbaugh's show, etc.

The day is coming when the last smoker in the world will be flushed from under a sooty rock only to be caught in the spotlight from a hovering health department helicopter. "Put your packet of Marlboros down and put your hands above your smelly head," the Virtue Police will shout on their bullhorn.

Ah, yes, the victory will be won. With smoking vanquished, all of us will live happily ever after, at least until we die of other things.

I should point out that I am not a smoker. Occasionally, I will smoke the odd cigar in my backyard in the hope that bothersome raccoons will leave the neighborhood and that my little bit of personal pollution will trigger one of those ozone alerts so I can get out of cutting the yard the next day. (No luck yet.)

But, for all practical purposes, I am not a smoker. I am not because my father smoked like a chimney and every morning I would hear him hacking away in the bathroom. He smoked for 40 years before he quit but he died of lung cancer anyway. Of course, he was 96 at the time.

When I was still a boy, I made this vow: When I grow up, I will be good and clean and virtuous. In the end, however, I just didn't smoke.

Smoking is a filthy habit and it makes you wheeze like an old bagpipe. Further, it is a vice that affects innocent bystanders who have a right to their own lungs full of clean air. Second-hand smoke forces the rest of us to grow larger noses to get the oxygen at higher elevations -- and hairy honkers to boot, the better to filter the air.

So Allegheny County is right and the anti-smoking forces in the world are right and you smokers are wrong. And yet .... and yet. There is a part of me, the liberal/libertarian part of me, that is troubled. You see, I believe as a general principle that people shouldn't be disturbed in their simple pleasures.

It is hardly ever conceded, but a lot of people smoke because they like it. Smoking gives them something to do with their arms, which would otherwise hang limply from their sockets and knock over vases. It calms them down. It gives them pleasure.

This is a great country but unfortunately making sensible distinctions is beyond it. I am all for most smoking bans, but banning smoking at parks and beaches -- as some other places do -- strikes me as fanaticism posing as public health. Preventing senior citizens from having a smoke at a bingo parlor is likewise crazy. What, smoking will stunt their growth?

If it were up to me, I would allow a few bars to have smoking sections provided they had very efficient systems to extract the air. With luck, they would suck it up so effectively that skirts would be lifted provocatively in the manner of Marilyn Monroe, although with my luck I would arrive when the bar was full of Scotsmen in kilts.

But compromises are doomed. So my poor smoking friends, good luck from that rare guy who hates smoking but not the smoker.

Reg Henry can be reached at rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.


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