Friday, July 29, 2011

Smoke Gets in Your Brain

I have no idea why this occurred to me, but . . .

Some years ago I was playing in a now-defunct bar called "Olde Grads." The band was positioned on a stage behind the bar. Looking past the backs of the bartenders, you saw shapes in a haze moving, dancing, drinking. The smoke was so thick in the place that the stage lights created solid curtains of color when they flashed.

One night, I was feeling particularly (and literally) sick of the smoke. As the drummer, I was farthest back, up against the wall. I saw a switch. Wondering what it would do, I flipped it. Immediately, the smoke cleared from the bar. It was an exhaust fan. The bartender (a guy who, I am sure, had left a few horse-heads in the beds of transgressors) whipped around with a crazed look on his face. As he searched for the cause of the clear air, he smoothed back his gray hair, chewed furiously on his soggy cigar and uttered the most unspeakable profanities. "Who the ____ turned on that  _____ fan?"

"Bobby," I said. "It was me. Isn't this better?"

He responded only by jumping up on the stage and flipping it back off. He looked and was satisfied that the smoke was building up again in the bar. Appeased, the rage gone from his eyes, he put his hand on my shoulder (Bobby liked me) and said, "Just play the goddam drums, Chris. You're good at that, right. Okay, Pal? Capisce?"

Nowadays, it is illegal to smoke in bars in our area. I, for one, am thrilled about this. There is no way to explain how much better I feel the day after playing a three-hour gig on the drums, in my early forties, than I did when I was in my twenties. The effect of that second hand smoke on me was real and it was devastating. I think it might even have caused me to get thyroid cancer, but I can't prove that.

For me, it works, this ban -- for obvious reasons. Some people, who argue that the owner ought to be able to do whatever he wants in his own establishment react mostly emotionally, with the kind of outrage that seems to have crept into the DNA of those who live in a democratic society in which people have the right to do what they want. "No one should be able to tell me the rules in my place."

I get that. My blood boils when I am called to jury duty, not because I have to go or because I don't think it is my duty, but because of the threats on the notice: "You WILL report or you will be arrested." That kind of thing.

On the other side of it, there are those who believe that laws are made to protect people and that a law banning smoking in bars is one that prevents people from the well-documented harm caused by second-hand smoke.

I think these are the only two possible stances. As a writing teacher, I'm always chirping about logical argument, so I need to look at this.

What gets me about this particular argument is that it stops at "freedom". The premise is:
"This is my bar. I own it. Therefore, the government shouldn't be able to tell me how to run it."
I agree, to a point. But I disagree when it comes to threats to the health of patrons. The counterargument to that is:
"If patrons don't want to inhale second hand smoke, they don't have to come to my bar."
True. But what about the babies those people bring during the dinner hour? What about the waitress who can't afford to give up her job? What about the drummer in the band who is just trying to live his dream?

One thing I can't argue against is that, except for the babies, these people could say: "Go smokeless, or we are out." It is not likely, but it is possible, therefore it is a logical point. And a law telling parents where they can bring their kids to dinner somewhere would just be creepy.

But we know second hand smoke is horrible for people. If a bar owner allows people to smoke in his bar, he is knowingly allowing harm to come to his patrons; therefore, I would argue, he is guilty of bringing harm to his partons, in full awareness of his actions. It isn't a question of law, to me. It is a question of morality. But immorality like this warrants legal intervention. Would it be moral or should it be legal for a bar owner to serve his beer in leaden pitchers because he likes the way they look?

A bar owner would not allow two guys to have a catch with a baseball in the middle of the room on a Saturday night. It could harm his partons. He is also morally obligated not to let those two guys smoke.

Should the law exist? Yeah, I think so. I know we don't want Big Brother to control our lives, but we need to fear the slippery slope reasoning of saying this is an over extension of government. (Laws that force restaurants to account for every calorie they serve? Stupid. If the patron doesn't know ice cream is bad and asparagus is good, that's on him.) There are laws against many harmful things. You can't swing a Louisville Slugger on a train. You might hurt someone.

These laws are not saying you can't smoke. They are merely saying you cannot smoke at the expense of others.
What is interesting is that bars still seem to be as crowded as they were when I started playing in them. People go outside for a ciggie. Big deal.

I know the ambiance is blown for old Bobby, but I will take being cancer-free over atmosphere any day. Bobby's ambiance could have cost me my life, in the end.
I don't know -- I wrote this faster than I should have. What do you think?


  1. You're right, although before you made me think about it I would have disagreed and taken the "they don't have to come to my bar" argument.

    I'm always on the side of personal freedom (especially as it applies to business), but it comes inseparably with protection of person and property. If it's poisoning as little as one one-millionth of the air (let alone fumigating a closed bar), isn't it an invasion of your personal safety? It might sound a bit radical, but by that logic you could argue that smoking should be illegal altogether.

    And that comes from someone who likes his menthols.

    Nothing like a little Hats&Rabbits to get the brain crankin' before work.

  2. Getting brains crankin' is what we do . . . haha. Might be a new slogan.
    Thanks, Nick.

  3. OK, so this is one of those topics that I get really fired up about. I will caveat my comment by acknowledging that I quit smoking a little under 3 years ago, and have many years of "courteous but indignant smoker tired of being treated with contempt" mentality engrained in me. I'll reign myself in, but I do need to disagree with the morality argument. Suffice it to say that bartenders don't need to serve alcohol in leaden pitchers for alcohol to cause harm to their patrons. I would argue that, if you're going to go down the moral responsibility road, bars in general should be banned as a moral obligation to protect society from potential alcholism, drunk driving, bar fights, domestic abuse, and the litany of other problems that may stem from drinking.

    Smoking is only at the expense of others if they have no choice but to be surrounded by it. A terrible choice indeed, but I would argue that you have the choice to decide which is more important to you: your health or playing drums in a bar. (As for the choiceless baby? He can't exactly get up and leave his home if dad's a smoker, either. Sorry baby, your *parents* are the one with the moral obligation to protect you until you're old enough to do so yourself, so you're going to have to go along with their choice.)

    Which is what it boils down to: choice. For me, the key point is that it should be up to the owner. As in, there would be BOTH smoking and non-smoking bars. Why does it have to be one or the other? If folks are truly concerned about second hand smoke, then surely the non-smoking bars would thrive alongside the smoking bars.

  4. THC -- you know, I probably shouldn't have even published this. You can tell by my last line that I thought it was a little half-baked at the time. I see what you are saying. It is a really touchy thing when laws -- like seatbelt laws -- are designed to protect us from ourselves. Though, I do see a difference between selling alchohol and selling it in leaden pitchers -- a closer analogy to allowing smoking. But I need to work on this more before I spit out another mediocre piece. And I did aknowledge that I can choose not to play in smoking bars, but maybe my sense of democracy is making me think: "Why should I have to choose not to work, earn money and express myself because others are forcing me to choose between my own health and doing what I love?" It's a tough position all around. I do think your point about both types of bars is good -- and I think they would both thrive, as you say. But, Selfish-Chris says: "Now I have to choose to play half the time or sactrifice my health." Man -- maybe this needs its own blog . . .