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Smoke Screens

A former NBA Star and ESPN commentator takes on the nanny state of america and argues for the right to light up by John Salley
By John Salley | From William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
Smoke Screens

Are we still living in America? There are some things happening in this country that are starting to make the familiar refrain of "the land of the free and the home of the brave" sound like a Jon Stewart punch line.

Why am I so upset? Take a look at Calabasas, California. A law has been passed there that bans all smoking in public, inside and outside. It sounds like some damn Orwellian title: The Comprehensive Secondhand Smoke Control Ordinance. Who dreams up this shit? Well, the regulation was passed unanimously by the city council. Calabasas seems perfectly happy to be the first city in the United States to declare that secondhand smoke is a "toxic air pollutant." No shit, Sherlock. Last time I checked, no one was banning automobile exhaust fumes, and that has to be a very close second to tobacco smoke as far as air pollutants go. But then, our little city councilmen in Calabasas couldn't go up against a double-decker bus, or the auto industry, and win, right? So what do they do instead? In high political fashion, they take the easy way out and pick on the weaker opponent…humans, a.k.a. The Smokers.

You gotta love their jackbooted tactics. Maybe I missed those days in history class, but haven't we fought a couple of world wars to keep crazy-ass dictators from stealing our freedoms, and didn't we draw the line in the sand a few years ago to keep communism from taking over the world? So if you haven't guessed yet, let me tell you where I stand on this action in Calabasas. With me being almost seven feet tall, when I stand for something it's worth noting: I'm against it. Listen up…I'm against it.

This issue isn't about toxins in the air that enter your body from the usual suspects—cigarettes, car exhaust, airplane exhaust, power lines or the destruction of the ozone layer and rain forests. Oh, no. Smoking, whether it's a cigarette or my beloved cigars, is a personal choice. And these good folks in Calabasas have forgotten that.

Now, full disclosure is called for here. I'm a resident of Los Angeles, California, and a member of the Grand Havana Room. There's one in Beverly Hills and one in New York, but I can't give out the secret addresses, or I'd have to kill you. No, just kidding. Actually, I'm serious. I'm a self-proclaimed cigar aficionado to the core. When I'm in Miami, The Forge is where I like to eat and light up. An elegant dinner, an aged wine, a not so aged lady and my favorite cigar (Padrón Anniversary) create an almost perfect evening.

Yes, I smoke cigars. But I'm considerate just the same. I don't light up without asking. OK, here's an example of how considerate I am. I sit down outside, question my neighbor if cigar smoke bothers him. If the answer is yes, I then politely ask him to move. Now you know I'm joking, right? Honestly, you can't legislate courtesy or common sense.

Nor can you save people from themselves. That's just downright impossible. And attempting to aggressively regulate personal freedom borders on communism; remember, that's the thing we fought to stop.

Fidel Castro, the "Dictator Extraordinaire," imposed this same sanction on his people two years ago in Cuba when he restricted smoking. Yeah, Cuba, the place that is synonymous with the word cigar. So call it an oxymoron, and guess what…it didn't work.

Oh, yeah, and don't forget our own trip down prohibition lane. It didn't work in the 1920s and probably won't work now. From 1920 to 1933, it cost America hundreds of millions of dollars annually in lost taxes. Prohibition was just an indication of how small matters spread like wildfires and destroy what is good. But the whole thing with bootlegging and speakeasies, that's what should happen when you try to strong-arm the American people—you provoke a backlash. It seems we just can't help repeating our mistakes.

I wonder how much those millions would be worth in today's tax dollars. Could it be close to nine trillion dollars, the new national debt limit that was recently approved by Congress to cover the massive debt the current administration has accumulated? Anything is possible.

The new and improved no-smoking ban in Calabasas may seem insignificant in regard to the swollen debt of the United States. But in the big scheme of things, it is a telltale sign that America has not learned from any of its past mistakes. Take, for example, Vietnam and Iraq. I was born in the mid-'60s and was very young when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. But from what I've read and heard, the war in Iraq sounds very similar. So, freedom for Iraqis but restrictions for Americans? Houston…we have a problem!

In 1994, California law made it illegal to smoke inside most public workplaces. That left the great outdoors as an open playing field for smokers. Which, by the way, sounded fair. Walking through a bit of secondhand smoke as you enter or exit a restaurant isn't necessarily going to shorten your life expectancy. Yet the same groups that complain about being 20 feet away from secondhand smoke speak constantly on cell phones—which supposedly are sending microwaves through your very delicate brain!—for more than 20 minutes at a time. They must be either oblivious to that threat or unconcerned about the electromagnetic radiation shooting through the phone all the while.

I say smoking is practicing freedom of choice! It may not be your type of freedom, but it's a freedom just the same.

So what is this Calabasas smoking ban really all about? It's about going back to the future. It is another confirmation that our American freedoms are being taken away from us.

Maybe I missed some other stuff in history class, too. But didn't the wall come down in Berlin? Looks as if it just went up in Calabasas.

Hey, I have an idea for the communist party in America that's now in charge. I'll turn into a modern-day Paul Revere in my black Hummer. The Russians are coming… The Germans are coming! I hope this wakes you up. What's next? Colored and white bathrooms? Women denied the right to vote or work? Let's look on the bright side of this ridiculousness. We're learning like the rest of the world that "stopping the war on terror begins at home."

As Public Enemy's Chuck D would say, "Fight the powers that be!"