Prohibition Redux

EXCUSE ME FOR MENtioning it, but the era of big government doesn't seem to be quite over yet. This is true whether or not you happen to be - as I confess to being - a member of the inhaling community and a person of smoke. Consider the most recent regulation agreement between big tobacco, the states and the legal profession. If ratified, this would effectively prohibit the promotion and advertising of a legal product, while counting on costly anti-smoking ""programs'' to be so ineffective that continued consumption will finance health care for our neglected and uninsured children. Like Milton Friedman's old crack about planning being ""socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor,'' this deal neatly contradicts its own expensively litigated terms.

But, hey, okay. The consoling fumes have long taught me to be tolerant and broad-minded. I wouldn't have objected to paying for decent health care on my 1040 form, so I'm certainly not going to complain when (or if) my vile habit brings about the same result. The hypocrisy is the least of it. But isn't there something un-American about the sheer level of intrusion, not just into the fabled free-enterprise system, but into the private sphere, that results from this bizarre national obsession?

Recently, taking my daughters to play in a park in Southern California, I saw prominent ""No Smoking'' signs posted in the open air. I couldn't decide whether these were funny or sinister or both. In order to share this park, I will gladly put up with Rollerbladers, dog walkers and other possible child menacers. The former, in general, don't execute their most hazardous maneuvers in the toddler section, and the latter cheerfully bring their scoopers along. I, bowing graciously, do not put out my stogies or butt ends in the sandbox. And thus the beloved community limps along. Or should. Yet in one area, it is the adults who are forcibly treated like children. What is striking, in other words, is not the current battering of the producers but of the consumers.

Aha, you say, there is no second-hand dogpooping or Rollerblading. I also concede that spaces like aircraft and offices fully merit the protection of nonsmokers from smokers. But a point was passed some time ago when protection mutated into Prohibition. It is Prohibition when the Metroliner removes the only smoking car; a car that could easily have been placed in the rear of the train. (We smokers don't mind the caboose.) It is Prohibition when a bar in New York can't even hang out a sign saying ""Be Warned. Smokers Welcome.'' And it is Prohibition when people can be legally harassed for lighting up in the open air. The nonsmoker is now as well protected from the smoker as any reasonable person could wish or hope to be. So why do I think that this will not be the end of it?

I rather want to give up the habit myself, but at a certain point, self respect kicks in. I don't like being pushed around, or being lectured by nannies, or being told incessantly what is best for me. I don't like seeing other adults infantilized.

Am I an addict? What a question! A better question would be, who wants to know? Isn't there something depressing in the spectacle of free-born Americans, rushing around and commissioning studies about ""Dependency'' for all the world, as if society were one titanic therapy session? What could be more discouraging, too, than the surreptitious effort to ""prove'' addiction and thus bring the humble puffer within the jurisdiction of the FDA and, no doubt coming soon, ""the war on drugs''?

When asked if he smokes by Lady Bracknell in ""The Importance of Being Earnest,'' the suitor Algernon confesses that yes, he does smoke. Lady Bracknell approves, on the wonderfully absurd grounds that it is an excellent thing for a young man to have an occupation. That is a joke, if you like. What isn't so funny is the swelling army of those who seem to think that the word ""anti-smoker'' describe a full-time job. Would they, and the Therapist in Chief, agree to leave me in peace if I said I don't inhale?