The Oklahoma Legislature is once again taking up the issue of smoking in public places. State Sen. David Myers, R-Ponca City, has authored a bill that would ban smoking in most every bar and restaurant in Oklahoma. This comes just a short time after the 2003 state law went into effect banning smoking in restaurants and bars on the basis of their food revenue. At what point will Republicans say enough is enough when it comes to government intrusion into private commerce?
Restaurant and bar owners were faced with the decision in 2003 to invest in separately ventilated areas for smokers, or commit to serving food and beverages without a smoking option. Some of the more venerated local establishments such as Junior's, Ranch Steakhouse and Cattlemen's Steakhouse made the decision to invest in separate smoking facilities for their patrons, while others did not. From the looks of things, it doesn't appear they have any desire to tear those new walls down. Congratulations, capitalism.
Now enter the Legislature.
Why is the party of free markets, private commerce and individual freedoms proposing this bill? Some suggest that it's a public health issue, yet those same legislators just voted down a proposal to help children with autism. I've heard that it's in the best interest of the employees, yet I'm sure those who make that argument have never asked a cocktail waitress if they mind working in the bar.
Is it an economic development issue? Just the opposite. I recently read that some states and municipalities that have a comprehensive smoking ban are now debating rolling back such regulations in the interest of economic development.
I must now ask the question: Who are they to tell anyone what they can or can't do with their own property? The local establishments that chose to go with the smoking option took the risk of investment, and that investment paid off. Now some in this Legislature want to pull the rug out from under them.
This issue goes beyond simply "smoking" or "nonsmoking" sections in a restaurant. It speaks to the principles of conservatism that suggest the individual should be free to choose their course, whether it be to enjoy a fine cigar or to allow one's patrons to do the same. And at what point does the state stop making our decisions for us? I fully expect that the next proposal in the name of public health to be something to do with our dining options. After the cigar has been banned, what's next? The chicken-fried steak?
I fully expect the Legislature to do the right thing when it comes to this new proposal for a number of reasons. First, the current law achieves its purpose and strikes an appropriate chord with those wishing to dine in a smoke-free environment and those wishing to enjoy an after-dinner smoke. And secondly, and maybe even more importantly, I have faith in those legislators whom I personally know to occasionally enjoy a good cigar. Besides, can you imagine a state representative voting against the interests of Junior's, the Ranch or Cattlemen's? Where would they eat?
Smith is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.