Archive for Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Getting drafted into cultural war

Restaurants force allegiance in smoking ban battle

November 21, 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 as 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 in your death wish" 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 nicotine-free 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.

And if forced to choose sides, 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 long 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 on a lung drained after an accident. It is an unpleasant procedure done while the patient is conscious in an upright position. As he drew the fluid off my lung with a four-inch needle, the doctor had time to talk as he was forced to periodically stop as I was in danger of fainting. He attempted to brighten me up by telling me how one patient of his actually looked forward to the procedure. The man was a lung cancer patient who counted down the days between the twice-a-month torture so that he could once again breathe.

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) with smoke as thick as the London fog, making enjoyment of the music I was there to listen to impossible.

But for the most part, I get along.

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 burning on the front end of the cigarette.

My parents were caring and sheltering and didn't wish to put me at risk, but those were different days before cigarette packages gave fair warning of the consequences of lighting up their contents and brands were household names that sponsored the most popular television programs of the day (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 that has persisted to this day.

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 summer upholding the Lawrence smoking ban. They also 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, will be the only public place smoking will be permitted.

And then we'll move on to another front on the cultural war. From the opening guerrilla exchanges, my guess is it will be the fast-food fight.

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