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How the New Puritans threaten us all

The whole world is about three drinks behind. — Humphrey Bogart

How did it come to this? When was it decided that the dorks and the squares, the button-down mediocrities for whom a third Friday-night beer is the height of excess, would be calling the shots? Who empowered these tee-totaling chumps, these jogging health fascists with spotless livers and unblackened lungs, to decide where we smoke and how we drink? The Declaration of Independence professes a commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But apparently when it comes to tobacco and alcohol, all bets are off. America is in very real danger from a creeping neo-Prohibitionism, a systematic snuffing out of our beloved vices. It can only end badly.

Locally, Mecklenburg County Commissioners are pushing for the state to grant them the power to restrict smoking in public places, including a total ban on smoking in restaurants. The bill, introduced by Rep. Martha Alexander of Charlotte, is currently stalled in the legislature, but supporters of a smoking ban are fired up and determined to push it through.

It's happening in Charlotte. It's happening across the country. It's happening abroad. Smoking bans are everywhere. Colleges are drying out. The calls for "sin taxes" grow louder. Is it that much of a stretch to envision this drip-drip-drip of reproach, repression, and regulation eventually culminating in black-market smokes and a second stab at Prohibition?

Hedonists and debauchees of the world: wake up! Our inalienable right to self-destructive behavior is being methodically stripped away, and we're standing by dumbly as it happens. The swarming armies of healthy drabness are gathering, and they mean to turn us into them. So far, they're winning. We must not let them.

I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I suggest you look around at the world in which we live. . . and shut your fuckin' mouth! — Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks is dead. Smoking can do that to a man. Cigarettes, no question, are bad news. But in case it's escaped your notice, an awful lot of people smoke them — they're those folks you see huddled on the sidewalks outside office buildings. Some people — your friends and neighbors, even! — like to puff a cigarette or two only when they're out for a Saturday-night cocktail. But smoking and drinking at the same time like in a normal country isn't allowed anymore, so they too are kicked to the curb.

Now, I won't argue, as some do, that the seriousness of secondhand smoke has been exaggerated. And as someone who hacks butts on a semi-regular basis, and who'd love to kick the habit, I gladly agree with common-sense rules. In airplanes, of course. Shopping malls. OK, maybe even in small restaurants. But bars? Sorry. Smoking and boozing go together like Dean and Frank. To my mind, one of life's great pleasures is sitting in some quiet pub, a paper and a pint before me, the whorls from a cigarette playing in the late-afternoon sunlight. Soon, that could be a thing of the past in Charlotte.

It's useless to pine. We shan't smoke indoors again. Not here, not even abroad. Norway, for instance, enacted a nationwide ban last year. In squeaky-clean Scandinavia, that somehow makes sense. But Ireland? The verdant pleasure island with more pubs than people? It boggles the mind. Why should Dublin's nouveau riche call the shots? Can't some rural culchie, knackered after a day in the fields and ready to get fluthered down at the local, enjoy a fag with his pint? No, apparently — not if the publican doesn't want to fork over 3000 euros. Italy has prohibited smoking in most public places, too. England and Scotland may soon follow suit. Even Cuba — Cuba! — where cigar exports generate more than $200 million every year, has prohibited puffing tobacco in restaurants and anywhere within 100 yards of schools. Cuba libre? No más. And none other than Fidel Castro, who once upon a time was rarely spotted without a cigar jutting from his natty beard, has quit.

For many of the health Nazis, even indoor bans are not enough. Hawaii is now mulling prohibiting smoking on its public beaches. A San Francisco ban on smoking in city parks exempted golf courses originally, but now may include them after all. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, not content to snuff out smoking in bars from the Bronx to the Battery, has been pushing for a ban in Central Park. One wonders if the day will come when smokers won't even be able to indulge in their own homes.

A funny thing about that. A creepy new development has been reported of late. Howard Wyers, CEO of a Michigan medical-benefits administrator called Weyco, Inc., raised the hackles of civil-rights groups when — after instituting months of testing and offering numerous opportunities to enroll in cessation programs — he told four employees who refused to quit smoking that they'd be fired if they tested positive for tobacco use. Rather than submit to the test, they quit. Other employers — as many as 6000, according to a recent Newsweek article — now simply refuse to hire smokers in the first place. The very fact that there's a need for so-called lifestyle-rights laws, which give workers recourse against employers who punish off-the-clock activities, is a chilling comment on what used to be a free society. Where might this lead? Will companies soon be able to pink-slip workers with unhealthy eating habits? To mandate exercise regimens? Don't count it out.

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