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COURSEY: Expanding the 'non-smoking section'

Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 1:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 1:35 p.m.

I once could light up a Camel inside the sealed passenger cabin of an airplane, and tough luck for the guy sitting in the “non-smoking section” – which might just happen to be the seat in front of me.

But then the government took my freedom away.

I used to plant myself in the middle of the newsroom, a typewriter in front of me, a paper cup full of coffee to my right and a burning cigarette in an ashtray to my left, without a worry in world for the reporter at the next desk gasping for fresh air.

But then my employer stripped me of my rights.

I used to live in a country that respected my decision to poison myself with chemicals and carcinogens, but that country doesn't exist any more.

My country now recognizes that smokers aren't only killing themselves. My government recognizes that your right to breathe clean air trumps my right to blow smoke.

This shift in the wind, exemplified in Monday's vote by the Petaluma City Council to ban smoking in apartments, condominiums, hotels and other areas, raises howls from the libertarian-leaning sector of our society. This happens whether the ban is broad, such as Petaluma's and Sonoma County's, or narrower, such as public-place smoking bans in cities such as Santa Rosa or Windsor.

It's the heavy heel of government pressing down on individual freedom, critics cry. Especially when it reaches into apartments and condominiums – the homes that we are told are our very own castles.

If that were really the case – that our homes were castles protected by moats that kept cigarette smoke confined to the premises – then I would agree that government has no business telling us what we can or cannot do inside the gates. Smoking, after all, is still legal.

But no moat can contain tobacco smoke. In an apartment complex or a condo or a motel, if the guy next door lights up, it's likely that you're breathing what he's smoking.

Sure, you can shut your windows if you don't like it. But then whose rights are being squeezed? Shouldn't we all have the freedom to breathe fresh air?

I made the decision to quit smoking a long time ago. I appreciate that I don't have to share other people's cigarette smoke on airplanes, in work places, in restaurants. And I am thankful that my condominium neighbors don't smoke, because if they did neither my homeowners' association nor my city government has rules in place to prevent it.

A lot of folks who live in multi-family dwellings aren't so lucky to have non-smoking neighbors. They, and their children, don't get to decide whether to use tobacco. If their neighbors smoke, they become second-hand smokers whether they like it or not.

They are free to seal themselves inside, of course (though smoke still seeps through electrical and ventilation systems). They are free to move somewhere else, if they have the resources or the inclination.

But that's not true freedom.

In our country, freedom includes the right to be protected from harm caused by others. So I'd much rather see our government use the law to limit the damage of unhealthy habits than allow smokers the freedom to impose their habits on unwilling neighbors.

As just about anyone who flies will tell you: Expanding the “non-smoking section” is a good idea.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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