The Vice Squad

Why the new Puritans threaten us all

The whole world is about three drinks behind.
-Humphrey Bogart

HOW DID IT come to this? When was it decided that the dorks and the squares, the button-down mediocrities for whom a third Friday-night beer is the height of excess, would be calling the shots? Who empowered these teetotaling chumps, these jogging crypto-fascists with spotless livers and unblackened lungs, to decide where we smoke and how we drink and what we eat? The Declaration of Independence professes a commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But apparently when it comes to substance abuse and foods of dubious nutrition, all bets are off. America is in very real danger from a creeping neo-prohibitionism, a systematic snuffing out of our beloved vices. It can only end badly.It's happening across the country. It's happening abroad. Smoking bans are everywhere. Happy hours are history. Colleges are drying out. Fast-food chains are excoriated for exercising their right - their duty! - to serve big-ass burgers. The calls for "sin taxes" grow louder. Is it that much of a stretch to envision this drip-drip-drip of reproach, repression, and regulation eventually culminating in black-market smokes and a second stab at Prohibition?

Hedonists and debauchees of the world: wake up! Our inalienable right to self-destructive behavior is being methodically stripped away, and we're standing by dumbly as it happens. The swarming armies of healthful drabness are gathering, and they mean to turn us into them. So far, they're winning. We must not let them.

I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I suggest you look around at the world in which we live and shut your fuckin' mouth.
-Bill Hicks

BILL HICKS IS dead. Smoking can do that to a man. Cigarettes, no question, are bad news. But in case it's escaped your notice, an awful lot of people smoke them - they're those folks you see consigned to the sidewalks outside office buildings. Some people - your friends and neighbors, even! - like to puff a cigarette or two only when they're out for a Saturday-night cocktail. But in more and more places on the planet, smoking and drinking at the same time isn't allowed anymore.Smoking bans make sense, to a point. I won't argue, as some do, that the seriousness of secondhand smoke has been exaggerated. And as someone who hacks butts on a semi-regular basis, and who'd love to kick the habit, I gladly agree with common-sense rules. In airplanes, of course. Shopping malls. Even restaurants. But bars? Sorry. Smoking and boozing go together like Dean and Frank. To my mind, one of life's great pleasures is sitting in some quiet pub, a paper and a pint before me, the whorls from a cigarette playing in the late-afternoon sunlight.

And bless our laissez-faire legislators, that's a pleasure I can still enjoy in Florida - as long as I'm smoking in a stand-alone bar that gets less than 10 percent of its gross revenue from the sale of food.

Still, I can't help thinking that before long, it'll be illegal to smoke in any bar or club, in any state, in any country. Norway, for instance, enacted a nationwide ban last year. In squeaky-clean Scandinavia, that somehow makes sense. But Ireland? The verdant pleasure island with more pubs than people? It boggles the mind. Why should Dublin's nouveau riche call the shots? Can't some rural culchie, knackered after a day in the fields and ready to get fluthered down at the local, enjoy a fag with his pint? No, apparently - not if the publican doesn't want to fork over 3000 euros. Italy has prohibited smoking in most public places, too. England and Scotland may soon follow suit. Even Cuba - Cuba! - where cigar exports generate more than $200 million every year, has banned cigarette machines and prohibited puffing tobacco in restaurants and anywhere within 100 yards of schools. Cuba libre? No más. And none other than Fidel Castro, who once upon a time was rarely spotted without a cigar jutting from his natty beard, has quit.

At least indoor bans make some sense. Plenty of people are happy to come home from bars not smelling of smoke. I'll buy that. But it seems even indoor bans are not enough. Hawaii is now mulling prohibiting smoking on its public beaches. A San Francisco ban on smoking in city parks exempted golf courses originally, but now may include them after all. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, not content to snuff out smoking in bars from the Bronx to the Battery, has been pushing for a ban in Central Park. One wonders if the day will come when smokers won't even be able to indulge in their own homes.

A funny thing about that. A creepy new development has been reported of late. Howard Wyers, CEO of a Michigan medical-benefits administrator called Weyco, Inc., raised the hackles of civil-rights groups when - after instituting months of testing and offering numerous opportunities to enroll in cessation programs - he told four employees who refused to quit smoking that they'd be fired if they tested positive for tobacco use. Rather than submit to the test, they quit. Other employers - as many as 6,000, according to a recent Newsweek article - now simply refuse to hire smokers in the first place. The very fact that there's a need for so-called lifestyle-rights laws, which give workers recourse against employers who punish off-the-clock activities, is a chilling comment on an ostensibly free society. Where might this lead? Will companies soon be able to pink-slip workers with unhealthy eating habits? To mandate exercise regimens? Don't count it out.

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