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Hooray for smoking, drinking and fox hunting

Sunday, February 23, 2003

When I was young, poor and heathen, my sole payday indulgence was to drive to a tobacconist at the mall and buy a lone cigar from some Central American dictatorship.

Exiting the mall one Wednesday, cigar in mouth, I spied a young family -- father, mother, daughter and son -- departing. Imagining myself courteous, I held the door open for them. The father walked by and emitted a stage cough. The children, their noses crinkled in virtue, coughed loudly. Finally, the mother passed and before she could commence her performance, I snapped, "It's not lit."

"So?" she replied.

Exactly. This was not about smoke bothering someone. This was about the sight of someone about to smoke bothering someone. I should have bought a bottle of gin and waved it at them. They deserved a stage hangover.

This memory -- idiotically holding a door for the piously insolent -- is useful in deciding where to stand on the current enthusiasm for banning smoking from the bars and restaurants of Pittsburgh. Just as that family disdained the sight of a pleasure of which they did not partake, it is clear that many who would like to put an end to cigarettes in the city's bars are less troubled by smoke in their nostrils than by the worry that somebody's having fun.

Joe Kotrozo, who runs the Cigar Bar off Market Square Downtown, knows that feeling. A perfectly jolly and inoffensive man, he routinely prowls a bar to ask every patron individually if he may smoke and urges any dissenters to come forward.

"I'm tired of fighting with virtuous people," he said. He has had unlit cigars in his mouth and been approached by people who volunteer how offensive they find its aroma.

Pittsburgh is regularly beset by a phalanx of people who want us to stop smoking, stop drinking, give up meat, avoid fur and boycott the circus. I once encountered someone who seriously believed I was at moral risk for poisoning the mice in my kitchen. I agreed to stop and he later turned down an invitation to dinner at my house and, frankly, I didn't blame him because the mice came back.

Individually, any of these pursuits might be a good idea. I have, save the occasional cigar, stopped smoking. I drink less. Fish is more common on my table than beef and I would never eat a fur-bearing fish. My objection is legislation by people who consider everyday life the pursuit of the incorrigible.

This theory applies suitably to all manner of missions of virtue. Great Britain annually consumes 110 pounds of meat per person, none of which grows on trees. Yet Britons in large numbers now demand that Britain ban fox hunting: that tradition in which landed Brits chase rummily on horseback across soggy fields, behind a pack of hounds in pursuit of a fellow consumer of Britain's poultry. There is no doubt that the fox dies at the end of this endeavor, although it's a sure bet the fox had a better time than most of the chickens and cows the British gulp down.

The most likely objection to the fox hunt is that it is pointless pleasure. One of the sure signs of a society turning into a passel of Robespierres is the certitude that pleasure must have a point. It should come as no surprise that a counterproposal to allow the hounds to chase a man dragging a scented sack behind him met with no mercy from those who simply want an end to riding to hounds. This is not about compassion for foxes. This is about anger at seeing people having an unapproved good time.

On our side of the Atlantic, animal rights enthusiasts go into the woods in the wee hours of dawn and clack pots and pans to drive away deer and harass cranky men who are carrying firearms beyond the view of witnesses. The objection here is that it is cruel to shoot deer, strap them to the hoods of cars and take them home to be eaten. Presumably, if meat must be eaten, it should first be taken to Disney World, given a conjugal visit, then executed quietly and in private. I only wish these noisemakers would ply their trade in a state where Bengal tigers are hunted.

The solution for those who do not want to be exposed to smoke is fairly simple. A former cigarette user who now takes in about five cigars annually, I practice these measures myself. They can stay away from the bars where they encounter it or they can ask bar owners to restrict smoking. If so few barflies tolerate smoke, then savvy publicans will notice a decline in business.

But a decline in bar business, it seems, would satisfy many in the anti-tobacco lobby which appears to be auditioning for the role of national dad.

Within hours of the Murphy administration's suggestion last November that it would seek a 10 percent tax on poured drinks in the city, Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, fired off a letter to City Council President Gene Ricciardi urging the adoption of the tax.

"Economic studies have found that, similar to cigarettes, a 10 percent price increase for alcohol results in about a 4 percent overall consumption decline, with larger consumption declines among heavy drinkers," Godshall wrote.

Doubtless we would all be a healthier world if tobacco and alcohol vanished, but when we use taxation as a punitive measure we eventually drive out one vice and need to discover another to milk for the public treasury. When tobacco and alcohol are gone, keep an eye out for the caffeine and fat tax.

For now, let us grab what idle pleasures we can. So, if you don't mind, I'm going to buy a cigar. And if you do mind, just cough loudly. It'll remind me to light it.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965).

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