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Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

The unthinkable has occurred. Smoking is no longer allowed in Irish pubs.

The cry has already gone out, the rending of garments has begun, and many of the sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle have made plans to take their drink in the smoky solace of their own front parlors.

This development bodes well for the non-smoking Irish, those for whom a wee pint at the corner Fox & Shamrock has become an olfactory nightmare. No more secondhand smoke, which as any visitor to the old country knows, swirls through the quaint wainscotted interiors with the intensity of Central Valley tule fogs. No more clothes reeking of smoke. No more collective case of lung cancer.

In the U.S, such legislation has already occurred in high-minded regions such as California, Delaware and New York. Now ghettoized onto the parking lot or the back patio, smokers must stand, pathetic and pitiful, puffing away without the fulfillment that comes from lighting up any damn place one pleases. When bars outlawed smoking in California, many of those who loved to smoke found that the thrill was gone. They hung up their Marlboros and embraced a cleaner, healthier way of life.

At first it was eerie. Smokeless bars seemed as unnatural as Toyota's horn-blowing robot. Anybody who ever enjoyed a cigarette knows that nothing enhances the savor of that nicotine-charged smoke more than a sip of (fill in the blank) gin & tonic, St. Pauli Girl, Scotch rocks, chilled Chardonnay. The synergy of smoke and booze is no mere subjective folk myth. A recent study revealed that there is indeed something about the biochemistry of smoking that was pleasurably enhanced by the addition of alcohol.

The hue and cry over the smoking ban wasn't simply coming from bummed out nicotine addicts, who felt marginalized (because they were marginalized) by the smoking ban. Owners of clubs and bars protested, loudly, that their businesses would be nothing short of ruined by the legislation against smoking. Astonishingly enough, they were wrong.

In California, smokers -- and former smokers -- have adapted. In New York, now in its 11th month of the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, the city Department of Finance reports that far from being ruined, business is up by 10-12 percent in establishments that have been forced to go smokeless.

So will our Irish brethren similarly calm down, adapt or quit smoking in droves? Will there be pub crawls in the post-smoking era?

A spirited letter to the editor in the April issue of Vanity Fair by the painter David Hockney highlights a deeper cut to the human spirit engendered by all this brouhaha.

Hockney decries the loss of sophistication implied by the smoking ban. Outlawing smoking in bars denies us the right to choose the means, if not the time of our inevitable deaths, he claims. Hockney's point, aside from plenty of name-calling and petulance, is that this rush to legislate for our own good is utterly misguided. (Remember how everybody stopped drinking during Prohibition?) Such laws pretend that it is possible to stave off death; nay, they deny the inevitability of death itself.

Has Mayor Bloomberg of Manhattan never heard of Heidegger? Of our "being-toward-death?" Hockney raises the valid point that it should be our choice whether to thumb our noses at death and savor our vices, or to engage in obsessive exercises in staving off mortality (think of our obsession with cholesterol, exercise, nutrition).

French existentialist and notable man of excess Jean-Paul Sartre was such a diehard smoker that his frequent flirtations with kicking the habit actually show up in the pages of his philosophical masterpiece, "Being and Nothingness." With a ubiquitous cigarette in hand, Sartre also reminded us that we -- not our parents, not our spouses, not even our lawmakers -- are responsible for how we lead our lives. Attention smokers, he said: Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time. (Of course, he said it in a more elegant style that won him the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature.)

In other words, if you refuse to stop smoking, fine. Just accept that fact that your habit has implications that outrun your immediate bodily environment. John Stuart Mill put it simply. You're free to do what you want as long as it doesn't impact another's freedom to do what he or she wants.

Why do states and nations need to step in and ban practices like smoking? Here's why. When people refuse to take responsibility for their actions -- for example, to accept that eating super-sized fast food day after day will, yes it really will, make you obese and diabetic -- or to grasp that forcing others to develop the same lung cancer that you're working on is a subtle form of homocide, then the law (which in a democracy is a stand-in for each and all of us) must step in and stop you from killing others while you kill yourself.

If your lung cancer stopped at your own doorstep, it would merely be sad. But your fellow taxpayers ultimately bear the burden of your addiction, in insurance premiums, HMO costs, workers comp payments and your co-workers' additional workload when you finally develop that roaring case of emphysema.

David Hockney is right to bemoan the loss of dancing beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free. But there's a way out of this fix.

Bohemians of the world, unite! Open your own smoking bars. Call them private clubs if you must, but go ahead and open your doors to smokers of Cohibas, Camels and Galoises. Keep the faith with the Sartres, the Kerouacs, the Bogarts, the legendary smokers. Think of Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager." Smoking in that era wasn't simply a symbol of decadent romance -- it was the very embodiment of coital consummation and intensity that the young and the sensuous have craved since the first match was lit in a velour-lined lounge somewhere in Paris many years ago.

Christina Waters, PhD is a freelance writer who teaches philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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