The Case Against a Smoke-Free America

There is such thing as a refined taste for tobacco, and enjoying it in moderation.

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Claudia Daut/Reuters

If a time traveler from the early 1990s were to arrive in the U.S. bars and restaurants of today, what would notice first? Perhaps that the food has become more interesting and varied, or that a perplexing number of diners are photographing it with their remarkable phones. The most obvious change, however, might register on the nose: the nearly complete absence of indoor smoking.

California implemented the United States' first modern statewide smoking ban in 1998. Today twenty-nine states and 703 municipalities require bars and restaurants to be smoke-free, according to data maintained by the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation (North Dakota brought the tally to thirty states this month). Tobacco use has been banished from our culinary radar along with the question "smoking or non?" Most of us don't miss it. Yet as a slew of new bans, taxes, and regulations drive smoking to the peripheries of society, it's worth giving tobacco another look.

Tobacco is viewed as pure vice by public health officials. Surgeon General Everett C. Koop famously hoped for a smoke-free America by the year 2000. Koop echoed Lucy Page Gaston, the early twentieth century prohibitionist who campaigned for "a smokeless America by 1925." This impulse was revived by Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who testified before Congress in 2003, "I see no need for any tobacco products in society."

But millions of people do see the need, and they're not all just looking for a nicotine hit. There is much more to tobacco than mass-produced cigarettes; premium tobacco is arguably every bit as artisanal as many of the other food and drink products that those of us in the culinary world obsess over. The unique leaf offers flavors that many find enticing, appearing occasionally in the works of creative chefs, bartenders, and baristas. At the French Laundry, Thomas Keller experimented successfully with desserts like coffee custard infused with tobacco. In Tampa, Cigar City Brewing crafts beers inspired by cigars. Tobacco bitters appear on fancy cocktail menus. In France, distiller Ted Breaux makes a liqueur called Perique that captures the essence of Louisiana pipe tobacco; it's a remarkable elixir with a light, tea-like quality, and alas, as of this writing not imported to the United States. (Cautionary note: Tobacco infusions can extract dangerous levels of nicotine, so anyone curious to attempt one should first do careful research.)

Links between alcohol and tobacco are not new. In Elizabethan England, the then novel act of smoking was described as "dry drinking." The metaphor is apt: Neither alcohol nor tobacco is essential to life, but both offer pleasant flavors while enhancing mood and sociality. And, of course, both are harmful when consumed in excess.

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My own introduction to tobacco came through the drink world too, though with coffee instead of alcohol. In my days as a barista, one of my best customers was a fitness instructor and avid cigar smoker. This combination perplexed me until I realized that he talked about his cigars the same way I talked about coffee. The varietal of the plant and the origin of the leaf mattered, a Cameroon wrapper tasting differently than one from Nicaragua. Flavors ranged from light claro tobacco to deep, dark oscuro, much as coffee roasts have their own spectrum from light to dark. I eventually realized that cigars offered rewards similar to those of the food and drink with which I was already enamored.

Though access to other quality goods has expanded in recent years, tobacco is ever more restricted. Smoking bans make it difficult to enjoy. Taxes make it expensive. And the Food and Drug Administration, which may soon regulate cigars, threatens to stifle the industry with heavy-handed rules.

Smoking bans are the most obvious difficulty for those of us who enjoy cigars. A good cigar could take an hour or more to burn, so huddling in the cold and rain to have one isn't an appealing option. Smoking bans are an inconvenience to all smokers, but for cigar smokers they can mean not lighting up at all.

Not content with banning smoking in most indoor environments, legislators have moved on to shutting down the remaining exceptions and extending bans outdoors and into private homes. The bans creep steadily forward, beginning with seemingly reasonable exemptions that are soon eroded. Boston, Massachusetts is a prime example. The city's original ban grandfathered in six existing cigar bars. This was apparently six too many for the city of more than 600,000 people, so a later ban wiped out that allowance and extended to outdoor patios. Boston's remaining cigar bars are slated to shutter after a grace period, a delay granted because, as one member of the Boston Public Health Commission so generously put it, "We wanted to give them a bit more time to get used to the idea that they'll have to close."

Boston is far from alone. New York is banning smoking in parks. California has banned it on many beaches. In much of sunny Los Angeles one can no longer smoke on restaurant patios. The entire town of Calabasas, California, is smoke-free in public places. San Francisco suburb San Rafael has banned smoking in all multi-unit residences. In Oregon it's essentially illegal to open a new cigar bar or smoking lounge. In North Dakota voters recently approved a ban that includes tobacco shops. In rainy Washington, even an indoor private smoking club protected by a twenty-five foot airlocked walkway was deemed to be in violation of the statewide ban. I could go on. Non-smokers understandably prefer to avoid secondhand smoke, but really, where's a smoker supposed to go?

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Jacob Grier is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His work has also appeared in Reason, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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