Folks who make so-called slippery-slope arguments are often dismissed with a simple, “these are reasonable measures and what opponents worry about would never happen.” But history has a bothersome way of showing that slippery-slopers often are right, generally at the expense of some of our liberties. That seems to be the case with smoking bans.
We’ve argued that government bans on smoking on private property such as bars and restaurants limits the freedom of those property owners to use their property as they see fit. Proponents of such bans respond with two main arguments: Nonsmoking patrons have a right to breathe clean air when they go out to dinner and their health trumps property rights; and courts have ruled that bars and restaurants, while privately owned, are public places, so private property rules don’t apply.
Although we take issue with the latter argument, that’s another editorial. It’s the former that concerns us today.
Anti-smoking activists in San Francisco succeeded in pushing the city a step closer to a total tobacco ban recently when the city’s supervisors approved a ban on smoking in “any unenclosed area” that is under the city’s jurisdiction.
That’s a pretty broad mandate and covers much of San Francisco’s outdoors.
Activists who make arguments about the health dangers of secondhand smoke might have a point when referencing enclosed areas such as offices, bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces; the smoke has nowhere to go and lingers in the air. But outdoors is a different matter; the smoke wafts up and away from people and disperses in the air, so we’re not buying that it’s a health issue. We’d lay odds that the argument has moved beyond health issues and is into the realm of annoyance.
We understand that many people don’t care for the smell of burning tobacco. Their arguments have dominated the Clovis News Journal’s letters to the editor in recent days.
But that’s not a legitimate reason to force their sensibilities on others. At least, not in a free society.
It’s a short step from this ban to one even more encompassing.
At least San Franciscans can still smoke in their cars. But what will happen when some smoker’s smoke drifts out his open car window and annoys a person walking on the sidewalk? Is the annoyance enough to trigger the law? Most likely not, but since we’ve already moved beyond the health argument, doesn’t it seem possible, perhaps even probable, that nonsmokers will begin to believe they have a right to never smell tobacco smoke?
What about the guy sitting on the step in front of his lovely Victorian row house overlooking San Francisco Bay, enjoying an after-dinner cigar? Those homes are close to the sidewalk and the smoke will likely drift over to any passing pedestrians. While the smoker is technically not in breach of the law, the effect on passing walkers is the same as if he were walking along with them. Will he soon be limited to enjoying his macanudo indoors, sitting next to one of those ionic air purifiers that removes smoke from the air?
It’s interesting to note that city-owned golf courses are exempt from the ban. City officials worried about the financial impact of the ban if smokers were drawn to private links where they could still light up. Too bad government doesn’t worry more about the economic impacts of smoking bans on private property owners.