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April 2014
Where There's Smoke
A politically incorrect view of the current rage to ban all smoking everywhere.

What follows is politically incorrect. Parents, guard your children.

Second disclaimer: Yes, cigarettes are bad for you, a terrible waste of money, an annoyance and probably a danger to others. A filthy habit, even.

Okay, now the story can begin. I am standing on line in the bank. Beautiful Nurit, my favorite teller, is on a break at teller station 4. Leaning back under the big sign that says, in large red Hebrew, English and Arabic letters, SMOKING FORBIDDEN, she is enjoying a cigarette. With a faraway look on her olive face, she practices pretty French inhales.

Since I want Nurit to be happy, I try to ignore the small serpent of civic virtue that has wiggled its way into my consciousness. Why, it whines, should Nurit be allowed to pump second-hand smoke into the closed confines of my air space? Why, moreover, should Nurit be allowed so egregious a violation of the posted rules? ?

But why, I ask my serpent, are you so uptight? You can‘t even smell the smoke from here.

None of the other bank patrons lined up or milling about seems even to notice Nurit‘s transgression. Peacefully, she sucks in another drag and lets out a long curl of smoke. Why can‘t you just leave her alone?

I am preparing to settle in for long discussion with my serpent — the line is not moving anyway — when suddenly an elderly fellow wearing a cap (looks like an American retiree) hurries over and says something sharply interrogative to Nurit. Her face darkens with an unlovely vexation, she crushes out her cigarette, grabs her purse and stomps off to the back of the bank. The serpent crawls back into its hole, the line starts to move again.

All over the Western world, smokers have for years been on the defensive. Even Prime Minister Rabin grew cranky from seeing his picture in the newspaper with a cigarette burning between his fingers while some caption writer practiced irony over his refusal to sign the law banning smoking in the Israeli workplace.

But even in Israel, it is now illegal to smoke in indoor public places such as markets, offices, post offices and banks (listen up, Nurit!). Buses, too, thank goodness.

Fine. Restrict the advertising, educate the public, tax the packs. Smoking cigarettes is bad for you. In America, the companies villainously target minorities and minors and then add extra nicotine, to hook them better.

But — here‘s the Politically Incorrect part — let‘s have some emotional and intellectual balance, please.

Car exhaust also causes cancer, and you don‘t exactly see the same civic passion for regulation of car use, restriction of car advertising, protection of non-riders and so forth. In most urban downtowns, it is probably safer in an air-conditioned restaurant with a smoking section than out on the toxic streets.

Part of my ambivalence here derives from the anti-smokers‘ ultimate goal, at least as Natan Barson, the chair of AACI‘s “no-budget,” all-volunteer Anti-Tobacco Committee, explained it to me. Barson, a retired teacher who immigrated from the U.S. in 1970, wants to have tobacco “declared poisonous and its use eliminated.”

Thus even separate smoking sections no longer satisfy the anti-smokers. Many American cities are struggling with laws that would (or do) prohibit all smoking in all restaurants. Whether the owner wants that or not. Whether the patrons want that or not.

Is this reasonable — or is it just another form of that oldest of human occupations, nagging your neighbor? If you don‘t want to break bread even in a restaurant that restricts smokers to a separate section, then go to one that bans them completely. Isn‘t that how free competition is supposed to regulate the marketplace?

Now, since you‘ve read this far, I‘m going to let you in on my secret theory about the hidden side, or hidden side-effect, of the battle against smoking. As he navigates the narrow highway to the total banning of all cigarette smoking, Barson wants smokers in restaurants to be kept, not just in a separate section, but behind “ceiling-to-wall barriers with a door that is kept completely closed.” Total segregation.

The conscious intent is to protect the public health. But since the incidence of smoking increases as one goes down the socio-economic-educational ladder, a class component enters into it, too.

Functionally, you create a barrier not just against the smoke but against the kind of person who smokes. By segregating smokers, you have managed to ban all the uneducated socio-economic low-lifes from your genteel sight.

Frankly, I don‘t want to change the character of every luncheonette and truck stop from Haifa to Hawaii. How, after all, shall we calibrate danger to the bronchia against the healing breath of social fresh air that comes when us white-collar types achieve easy communion with guys who have calloused hands and no ambition to be politically correct? Please, social engineers, let us mingle.

Nonetheless (the scary parts are over now, you can let your children back in the room), I confess that when Natan Barson — who is hard at work trying to get non-profit status for a new organization to lobby and educate against tobacco use in Israel — comes knocking at my door, I will contribute a few shekels. Cigarettes are bad for your health, after all, and I want to protect my beautiful Nurit.

First published, Jerusalem Post Magazine

 
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