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The New Ghandis: Bar Smokers in California

Free Speech & Election Law Practice Group Newsletter - Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 1998
By Lance T. Izumi
May 01, 1998

Here's a quiz. Which of these is a clear-cut crime:

A)  You're the governor of Arkansas, and future president of the United States, and you attempt to force yourself sexually on a young female state employee,

B)  You're the vice president of the United States and you make partisan fundraising calls from your government office, or,

C)  You're Joe Blow and you light up a cigarette in your neighborhood bar.

In Big Nanny America, the answer, of course, is "C." Specifically, in trendy hypochondriac California, a first-in-the nation state law took effect in January banning smoking in bars and lounges across the state. The ban is virtually total and applies to free-standing bars, taverns and cocktail lounges, cigar bars, private club bars and restaurant bars. Smoking is also banned in gaming establishments and bingo halls. (It's evidently okay for fools and their money to be parted as long as the fools don't breathe second-hand smoke on those doing the parting). Only those bars with outdoor patios are allowed to make accomodations for smokers.

The costs of lighting up are not light. Bar patrons who stoke up their stogies will find themselves on the wrong end of fines ranging up to $500. Bar owners who refuse to play smoking cop will also be fined.

Enforcement of the ban is left to local law enforcement, which means that the rigor of enforcement will depend on the subjectivity and zeal of local officials. For example, after the ban took effect, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department immediately handed out 30 to 40 citations to bingo parlor owners and their patrons. The bingo parlor owners, however, have fought back and have obtained a temporary restraining from a local judge preventing enforcement of the ban.

Against this dismal backdrop of lifestyle Stalinism, however, resistance movements have mobilized. Tired of being kicked around as America's most persecuted minority, smokers are beginning to fight back.

In mid-January, a colleague of mine at the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), who is a smoker and a former 1960s-era Berkeley student radical, circulated a tongue-in-cheek, yet quite real call-to-action memo to PRI staff members: "I am inviting my comrades to join me in a 60s-style direct action in support of smokers' rights. I can think of no better way to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday than in a demonstration for a modern civil right." What direct action was to be taken? According to my friend: "It has been unanimously decided in the People's Congress that we gather at 5:00 PM to visit a few bars, and light up. There will be a Central Planning Committee meeting [where] ashtrays will be provided."

The first bar the protestors visited was a famous watering hole in the popular North Beach section of San Francisco. Upon entering, they immediately spotted a swarthy fellow playing pool while taking drags on his prominently lit tobacco torpedo. Sidling up to the criminal, PRI's Che Guevara asked him about his non-conformity with the new rules of polite society. Taken somewhat aback, the culprit replied in animated Italian. However, when informed that all the PRI squad leader wanted was a light, the man's English improved markedly. It was then that the PRI staffers noticed that the bar was plastered with "no smoking" signs, but they were all in foreign languages, none in English. The PRI team then settled in for a comfortable smoke along with several other patrons.

All told, the PRI team went to half a dozen bars that night and noted four where patrons were smoking as usual. One bartender at a working-class bar near the San Francisco bus station snarled, "If anyone complains I'll put a bag over their head, and if that doesn't work, I'll eject them. Everyone smokes here."

What will be the ultimate outcome of this battle between tyranny and freedom? According to The Resistance, the newsletter of the National Smokers Alliance, "If civil disobedience becomes the order of the day, legislators will have to face the reality of having passed a joke of a law that the public refuses to obey." This would not surprise Milton Friedman, who has observed that even the most autocratic head of a family cannot control every act of the family members. Friedman notes that unless laws are supplemented with people's support, those commands are often undermined or ignored. In other words, to borrow a 1960s radical slogan, the people united will never be defeated. Cigars and brandy, please.

*Lance T. Izumi is a Senior Fellow in California Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco, CA.