Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2007

Drafted into a culture war

July 5, 2007

When entering many restaurants you are forced to declare allegiance in one front of the culture wars with the question, "Smoking or non-smoking?"

I don't take sides in that debate. My pressing concern upon entering an eatery is waiting or non-waiting, and I'm very much on the non-waiting side even if I'm forced to swallow a bit of smoke with my meal.

But it seems in the last decade the debate has become more polarized and strident. It is now "if you want to suck on cancer delivery sticks, go ahead, but do it some place where I'm not forced to share" versus "no prude is going to take away my right to partake in a legal enjoyment no mater how loud he can raise his voice with his superior lung capacity." Obviously, as with the way many debates in the culture wars are framed, that doesn't leave much room for fence sitters.

Having never smoked a cigarette in my life, I suppose I would align with the non-smoking faction should I be forced to declare. I've known lifelong smokers with emphysema and a family member who died of lung cancer. While there may be no pleasant ways to die, some are easier than others. That reality was brought home to me when I had fluid from a lung drained after an accident, an unpleasant procedure done while the patient is conscious. To brighten me up, the doctor told me he had a lung cancer patient who looked forward to the procedure twice a month so that he could breathe better.

Nonetheless, I'm rarely bothered by the presence of smokers. It's true that sometimes the smoky trail from a burning cigarette at the next table somehow persists in finding its way to me, burning my eyes and irritating my lungs, but most often a simple readjustment at the table relieves me. And I've been in indoor entertainment venues (bars) and made enjoyment impossible.

But for the most part, I just don't notice. (Cigars are a different matter. I've actually smoked one or two of those in my life -- although I never inhaled -- but they should be banned from the public square.)

Perhaps my general tolerance has to do with my upbringing. Although both eventually quit, both my parents smoked in my youth. I remember watching in fascination as the smoke rose in curls from the smoldering ends of their cigarettes and eventually spreading out along some atmospheric plain in the room. They smoke filtered brand, but what reached me was from unfiltered tobacco.

My parents were caring and sheltering and didn't wish to put me at risk, but those were different days before cigarette packaging gave fair warning of the consequences of lighting up their contents and brands were household names from sponsoring TV programs (sometimes with ads that said smoking was actually a healthy endeavor).

That ended 40 years ago with a surgeon general's warning, although armed with denial cigarette companies and dedicated smokers have fought a determined rear-guard action.

Despite the determined and well-financed opposition and my basic indifference, the non-smokers are winning, as evidenced by the Kansas Supreme Court ruling of last month upholding the Lawrence smoking ban. They have reason on their side, although that doesn't always win the day. I suspect soon casinos, which want to do everything possible to keep their customers at the machine or table and not take those frequent trips outside smokers make, will be the only public place smoking will be allowed.

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