If you want to see how pluralism works in twenty-first-century America, just ask for an ashtray on a restaurant patio. Then look over your shoulder. You can’t miss him—the fit, middle-aged man with handsome white hair, his countenance contorted into unmistakable disgust. He’ll turn to his date and speak in a casual, half-apologetic tone, but at a volume loud enough for you to hear: “I can’t believe they allow that. I thought this place was respectable.” After the waiter brings you the ashtray, the man will wave him over. The man will point and the waiter will turn toward your table.
The patio has been the last refuge of Washington DC smokers since the City Council banned the dread indoor cancer stick in 2007, but conflict is inevitable come summer. Live-and-let-live pluralism sounds good in theory, but when two diametrically opposed forces meet, the waiter has to make a choice. He will return to your table and kindly ask that you extinguish the cigarette.
The smoking rate fell nearly 20 points in the 25 years that followed the 1964 surgeon general’s report linking smoking to cancer. By 1990, non-smoking sections were de rigueur in restaurants and public schools were telling every Dick and Jane the weed was poisonous. The free market responded to falling smoking rates with pluralism. Plenty of restaurants and bars had already started catering to the 80 percent exclusively, while those who ignored the Surgeon General congregated at businesses that welcomed them.
Libertarians and conservatives seemed to think the cultural tobacco wars ended there. Nick Naylor, protagonist(?) of Christopher Buckley’s great 1994 satire “Thank You For Smoking,” believed he had the answer. He spent the novel arguing that the tobacco lobby should abandon their challenges to the reality of smoking’s harmfulness and assume the barricade of liberty to win the day. Buckley, however, misread the intentions of True Believers. They don’t want to live and let live: they want extinction. Calls for pluralism are the last refuge for scoundrels, the cries of the beaten. There is no truce, just unconditional surrender.
Anti-tobacco hysteria reached a fever pitch in the wake of “Thank You For Smoking.” Every level of government, and the goody two shoes over at The Truth, bombarded airwaves with what had been common knowledge for decades using the hundreds of millions of dollars the state seized from the tobacco settlement. With record-levels of government spending, tobacco use declined a whopping 2 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The PSAs may not have done much to curb smoking rates, but they emboldened heavy-handed activists, lawmakers, and bureaucrats to nudge, as the paternalists say. The tactics shifted from criminalizing the product, to criminalizing the producer, to criminalizing the enabler, to criminalizing the individual user.
We all know how this ends. New York City banned indoor smoking in 2002. By 2009, North Carolina, the state tobacco built, turned its back on the staple crop. Increasingly onerous measures followed. My office building says it’s illegal for me to smoke within 25 feet of the door; a nearby restaurant has a non-smoking section on the patio (only enforced when the weather is nice enough for the anti-smokers to venture outdoors, of course). Companies and local governments have initiated smokers-need-not-apply policies. Some municipal governments have banned smoking on private property.
The health of the individual was never the goal. No matter the public and private expenditure, 20 percent of the American population never seemed to get on board with anti-smoking zealotry (while 100 percent enjoyed it while drinking). People were content to leave the nonbelievers to their smoke-filled rooms. The advent of second-hand smoke campaigns, however, raised their consciences. Suddenly the actions of barroom enablers and individual users threatened the poor waitress.