The Wrong Smoke Screen

by George McGovern and Norman E. Brinker
Copyright 1998 The Washington Times
March 31, 1998

When we were young men, the fate of the Free World was threatened by aggressive dictators. Our country was united by a common goal of survival.

Lacking such galvanizing external threats, today we are focused on all manner of issues that often undercut the freedoms we fought to preserve. Frivolous lawsuits range from sexual harassment to spilled coffee. Legitimate adult choices that were acceptable only a few years ago are choked off by a growing industry of culture mechanics.

Our 'peace dividend' is fractured by the we-know-what's-best-for-you crowd. On Jan. 1, California enacted the nation's first statewide ban on smoking in bars. As nonsmokers, we are not inconvenienced by this charge. Selfishly, we might welcome it. It is our preference that children be discouraged from smoking and that adults give first priority to the issue of their own health. We also favor Congress adopting the resolution agreed to by the state attorneys general and the tobacco companies, which would generate funding to help persuade young people not to smoke.

On the other hand, California's ban has much more to do with stifling choice than stopping smoking. Iran tried a similar ban in 1996. Its law was declared unconstitutional. The contrast is amazing.

Even cigar bars, separated from other parts of food and beverage service, have been told to close. These bars may turn out to be a passing fad, but we should let the adult employee and consumer markets decide their fate. Where is the logic when our civil laws accommodate bungee-jumping and sky-diving as 'extreme entertainment,' but smoking venues are legislated out of existence as being too dangerous.

Our fear is simple: What next?

It might be health advocates dictating which dishes can be offered on menus. Recently, Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, proposed taxing fatty foods to discourage their consumption. Incredibly, this idea was touted by U.S. News & World Report as one of its 16 'smart ideas to fix the world.'

Stopping public smoking can be viewed on one level as simply a health issue. But it has triggered a look into the future. Are those with the loudest megaphones entitled to decide which options are available to the rest of us?

In the name of public health, some groups are advocating legislation to ban fragrances in public. They have made headway with the city of San Francisco, where city supervisors have passed a 'sustainability plan' urging people to stop wearing cologne. Surveillance cameras were planned for a Culver City classroom to protect a teacher who claims students 'assault' her by spraying perfumes. This comes after the school system spent $20,000 trying to accommodate this teacher's complaint. Can a statewide scent ban be far away? What enforcement measures would come with that ban?

When our generation fought to maintain our freedom, we could never have imagined how those fights would continue. Today's threatening warriors are domestic and seem to have endless amounts of time to agitate for their positions. The Internet and the media are their weapons of choice. Some of their causes are worthwhile. But in others, good intentions have crossed the bounds of common sense and personal freedom.

Why would a liberal former U.S. senator and a conservative businessman agree on this issue? Because common sense is not a political or partisan point of view. And we remember when America had more important things to worry about.

George McGovern was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Norman E. Brinker is chairman of Brinker International, a restaurant conglomerate.

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