[r72] A Clere View of the Statehouse (2/24/2009)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Start Date: 2/24/2009 All Day
End Date: 2/24/2009

STATEHOUSE, Feb. 24, 2009 - Warning: This column will leave some readers fuming.

Last Thursday, I voted for a statewide smoking ban.

The bill passed the House of Representatives 70-26 and now goes to the Senate for its consideration. If it passes the Senate and the governor signs it, the bill will become law.

"Ban" is misleading. Perhaps "selective prohibition" would be a better description of what we passed. In its current form, Indiana's law would be one of the weakest in the country.

By the time the bill made it to a vote on the House floor, it had been amended to exempt casinos, bars and private clubs, among places where it would still be OK to light up.

Most Democrats voted for the ban - 44 in favor, five against and three excused from voting. My caucus was more evenly divided, with 26 of us voting for the ban, 21 against and one excused.

Many of my fellow Republicans opposed the ban as an assault on individual freedom.

I struggled with the issue. I am wary of government restrictions on individual freedom. In fact, I would like to eliminate many existing restrictions. But additional limitations on smoking are long overdue.

In its proper role, American government, including state government, should ensure that every citizen has an equal chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some people are happiest when they are at liberty to smoke. That liberty, however, comes at a cost to the rest of us.

Much of the argument for a smoking ban focused on the harmful health consequences of secondhand smoke.

It's not right for employees to be exposed to secondhand smoke. Some will argue that employees are always free to look elsewhere for work. Especially at a time when jobs are scarce, that argument stinks.

Unfortunately, the ban we passed would not protect employees in many of the smokiest workplaces, such as casinos and bars. It's possible some of the exemptions will be removed or modified in the Senate. If that happens, the bill will have to come back to the House for further consideration.

Nonsmokers who don't have to work around smokers are usually able to avoid most secondhand smoke. It's tougher to avoid secondhand taxation.

I view smoking much the same way I view seatbelt and helmet laws.

If a person's decision not to wear a seatbelt or a motorcycle helmet had the potential to affect only that person, I would leave the decision up to the individual alone.

But when a person is injured in an accident, his decision not to wear a seatbelt or helmet affects other people. Of course, it affects the injured person's family and friends. But it also affects the rest of us. Someone has to pay the bills. If the injured person is privately insured, the result is higher premiums for other policyholders. If the person does not have private insurance, taxpayers pick up the tab.

These costs are avoidable. It's the same way with smoking.

As with all resources, our health-care resources are limited. At a time when tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance and have trouble getting access to basic health care, we have to reduce our spending on preventable disease. How can we deny care to people with unpreventable diseases when we are not doing everything we can to reduce the cost of preventable diseases?

Private insurers are making headway. They are rewarding healthful living and making unhealthful decisions more expensive. Government is not doing as well. When I have to pay more taxes to fund Medicaid spending on smokers, my individual freedom is compromised.

The same week I voted for a smoking ban, I voted against a bill that would have required large chain restaurants to provide nutritional information.

The bill was authored by the same representative who proposed the smoking ban.

No negative health consequences are associated with being in a room with someone who is consuming a super-size burger, fries and soft drink, so the secondhand smoking argument does not apply.

My argument about the shared economic costs of unhealthful lifestyle choices does apply, however, and I was tempted to vote for the bill.

Resisting that temptation was somewhat easier than resisting the temptation of a juicy cheeseburger.

It is likely Congress will soon pass legislation requiring restaurants to provide nutritional information. A federal law would be preferable to a patchwork of state and local laws, which would create unnecessary costs for business and confusion for consumers.

As someone who has had a lifelong struggle with being overweight, I increasingly look for and appreciate restaurants that provide nutritional information.

It's coming, and if Congress doesn't make it happen in a reasonable time, count on me to support legislation at the state level. That would steam some people.

Steamed is better than fried.