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Blowing Smoke Again

by Paul F. Heller Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003 at 3:17 PM

United they stand, divided they fall: The wrong way to implement a smoking ban.

Since the Raiders got rolled up and smoked in the Super Bowl, I suppose there’s some measure of reason to discuss this smoking ban fervor that has gripped Arizona and much of the West. We’re a peculiar lot down here. For instance, we can’t buy beer before ten o’clock in the morning on Sundays. We can buy it at six in the morning on Saturday or Monday, but not on Sunday. In Michigan, you have to wait until noon. But even up there, it would be a warm day in January before they’d entertain the notion of banning smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues.

Here in Arizona, the good but weird people of Tempe bolted ahead of the pack and passed such a ban. Had they waited for the surrounding cities to get on board, they might have all passed the same ordinance, which would have mitigated the loss of the smokers’ business. The result was like a bullet in the foot as those poor, hooked devils, who also happen to be law-abiding citizens in good standing with their elected government, bolted across city lines in all directions to find hazy new haunts, and Tempe’s tax revenues from bars and restaurants drooped by twenty percent. Several long-standing businesses closed their doors for good.

The other surrounding municipalities have taken careful note of this. West of Phoenix, congruent cities like Peoria and Glendale have agreed to collude in creating a version of prohibition makes the most sense to all parties. In Scottsdale, north of Tempe, the powers that be have taken note of Tempe’s troubles, and they now realize that the linchpin in the whole thing is Phoenix.

While each of the cities has gone about following their blue noses in search of second-hand solutions, the clean air crowd has hit a brick wall in their efforts to do what California did in 1994 when it passed a comprehensive statewide ban on smoking in public places. With the entire state playing by the same set of rules, no one city had a decided advantage over its neighbors, so nobody really got hurt, except for the smokers. Now some, such as Dr. Wilfred Potter, chairman of Scottsdale for Healthy Smoke-Free Work Places, are finding that the oh-so-well-intentioned Tempe ban has given Scottsdale a leg up where it most needed one, given that the affluent, sprawling suburb is practically dependent on the sales taxes collected on dining receipts.

Rather than acknowledge that the Cigarette Nazis have created this problem themselves, Potter feels justified in pointing the finger at Phoenix, which he calls “a major holdup” in the Scottsdale bid to curb smoking. “Our council would go ahead,” he says, “if Phoenix showed some reasonableness on this. Mayor Skip Rimsza is a major obstacle in the whole process. I think the whole state would follow along if Skip Rimsza would give this consideration.”

But he’s wrong. Our mayor is indeed a buffoon, although the city hasn’t suffered too much for it; we’re still second in growth in the U.S., behind Las Vegas by a thin margin. As with most mayors of large cities, it is often hard to tell whether Skip is a Republican, as he is registered, or a Democrat, as his penchant for weaseling federal cash from Washington would indicate. Either way, primarily it seems to be the Democrats that are behind this prohibitionist nonsense. It’s almost as if the few liberals that are here are just acting out, winning any kind of election possible.

Quite frankly, passing these smoking bans is like shooting fish in a barrel. Only about one out of three people smokes, and only about one in three people care enough to vote on much of anything, so rallying around this issue is a piece of cake. If that’s therapeutic for those poor souls who are so radically outnumbered by Republicans in this state, that’s fine, but would it not be cheaper just to pay for them to all see psychiatrists, rather than allow them to diminish the minority’s pursuit of happiness? They did the same thing in the last election, passing a sin tax that doubled the government’s share on every pack of smokes. They did it because it’s easy.

But now it turns out to be not so easy as they thought. The same people who tried without much real success to pass fair marijuana laws in this state are now faced with the same knotty problem, ironically enough, in their persecution of the tobacconist. The city of Phoenix refuses to address the issue, clearly having more things on its plate than the bedroom communities that surround it. Since Phoenix is the capital, as well as the county seat, there is virtually no chance of having a uniform ban enacted by the state or county government, since the majority of the state and county’s population lives here. Without that, all the anti-smoking zealots have accomplished is to poke a bunch of holes in Tempe’s financial life raft, which was already listing under the weight of other overly ambitious endeavors.

With all of this in play, what Arizonans are really learning is that legislative morality cuts across party lines. Either way, capitalism usually wins out. Darned if I can find one good thing in any of it.

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