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No Smoking at the White House

By Marvin R. Shanken | From Cigar Case, Summer 93

The scenes are almost comical. Cigar smokers at the White House chewing on unlit cigars. Among them, the president and several of his top aides. You might even imagine Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez or another world leader stepping out onto the veranda after a state dinner to enjoy a cigar. Why? Because there is a ban on all kinds of smoking in the White House. At First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's orders, all ashtrays have been removed, and at her insistence, they are never to be placed on tables for official dinners. Apparently, her target was cigarettes, yet the effect of her decision also covers cigars. So despite her husband's well-known affinity for a good cigar, Hillary has drawn the line.

I'm not Hillary bashing. I'm sure her contributions, given her long legal career and her involvement in a number of important social issues, will serve the country well.

This letter is about tolerance. This is about accommodating the three- to five million cigar smokers in the United States. This is about a tradition that includes Winston Churchill and President John F. Kennedy. This is about the freedom to enjoy a cigar.

I've never been a militant cigar smoker. If it bothers someone in a restaurant or in a confined space that really doesn't lend itself to smoking, no way do I smoke. But I believe that there are places where a cigar should be allowed: outside; in restaurants with smoking sections; in the privacy of one's office or at home.

We live in a world of increasing intolerance. Everybody thinks that he knows what is best for everyone else's health. When it comes to highly controversial subjects such as smoking, the hysteria gets even worse. True, there is statistical proof that cigarette smoking is a significant health hazard. But no one listens to simple facts about such things as passive smoking-the only possible issue for cigar smokers-where the research does not support the regulations aimed at banning smoking in public. And no one cares to hear that moderate cigar smoking has never been lumped in with cigarette smoking as unhealthy. Even today, the Surgeon General's annual report on smoking contains disclaimers on cigar smoking, citing its relatively limited impact on health. In fact, many doctors and nutritionists say that whole milk, cheese, red meat and ice cream can be greater health risks than moderate cigar consumption.

So why the hard-line stance by Hillary? After all, the White House is a public place. Ban smoking in the living quarters? That's her privilege and a debate between her and the President. But why everywhere else in the White House for anyone who happens to be a guest of the United States? I certainly don't mind if a world leader has a cigar after his meal. After all, by being a guest in the White House, isn't he really a guest of mine too? Why should anyone be subject to the whims of one person who happens to be, or at least should be, a servant of the American people? Hillary shouldn't make those kinds of decisions for me and every other cigar smoker in America.

I've read reports that said the First Lady feels it would be hypocritical to be leading a health-reform task force and not take a stand on the no smoking issue. But the real hypocrisy would seem to be that people who work in the White House, including the President, will take every opportunity when they're outside the White House to have one of their favorite smokes. Will high-ranking officials who do smoke sneak out into the Rose Garden to have a puff when tensions run high in a Cabinet meeting, or when the War Room is operating around the clock because of some problem somewhere in the world?

If Hillary really wanted to set an example, she could do the country a great service by being a bit more tolerant. As almost every prohibitionary movement in the history of this country has discovered, if you deny people their basic right to make decisions for themselves, even about their own health, they will find ways to circumvent the restrictions and do what gives them pleasure.

President Clinton's surrender on this subject is shocking. He should stand up for his rights and the rights of all cigar smokers in America, especially to someone who doesn't have the power or right to impose such a restriction.