Oregon’s smoking ban creep

I became aware today of a nasty new bill currently before the Oregon legislature. Since the state’s smoking took effect in 2009, only two types of businesses have been allowed to let their patrons smoke. The first is cigar bars, which can only allow patrons to smoke cigars, must have proof of tobacco sales from 2006, and must have a full on-premise liquor license, among other requirements. The second is smoke shops, which can allow their patrons to smoke various kinds of tobacco but can’t sell alcohol of any kind.

Predictably, a number of smoke shops have responded to the state’s comprehensive smoking ban by creating inviting spaces where smokers can light up. House Bill 2726 would drastically amend the rules for smoke shops, eliminating these lounges and possibly putting some of them out of business entirely. The bill would require smoke shops to generate 75% of gross revenue from sales of tobacco or smoking implements intended for off-premise consumption, would forbid shops to sell, offer, or allow the consumption of food and drink of any kind, would allow a maximum seating capacity of four people, and would permit smoking only for the purpose of sampling to make retail purchase decisions.

The primary target of this bill is hookah lounges, which activists are playing up as nefarious dens designed to hook kids on candy-flavored tobacco. However there’s no language in the bill that would prevent it from affecting regular smoke shops too; the word “hookah” doesn’t even appear in the text. If this passes it will be very damaging to a number of cigar shops.

There are two forces at work here. One is the class bias that favors cigars but forbids hookahs. Cigars are stereotypically enjoyed by the affluent. Hookahs are stereotypically for the young or Middle Eastern. Of course consenting adults of all types enjoy both products, but under this bill only the former would receive legal protection.

The second force is the paternalist desire to take all the pleasure out of smoking. The original smoking ban was supposedly implemented to protect against secondhand smoke and isolate smokers into a few enclaves all to themselves. With that accomplished, activists now turn to making smoking as unpleasant an activity as possible. Closing down smoking lounges is one example of this. You see it too in the ban on flavored cigarettes, in the call to ban menthol too, or in calls to ban flavored tobacco of all kinds, including pipe tobacco, which is not exactly the rage with kids these days. Or you see it in another Oregon bill that would classify nicotine as a prescription drug, a clear way to say that tobacco is only for addicts and not for responsible enjoyment.

The Oregonian supported the original smoking ban, but to its credit the editorial board has come out against this new proposal. They also published one of my columns in 2009 calling for smarter, more liberal regulation of smoke-friendly businesses:

The Legislature should revisit the smoking ban to make its bar exemptions more reasonable. For starters, the elitist exclusion of all forms of tobacco except cigars must go; there’s no justification for privileging cigars over other ways of smoking. Requiring cigar bars to have a hard liquor license instead of just serving beer and wine doesn’t make sense either. Nor is there any reason to limit seats to 40 or forbid lottery machines. Allowing lottery games and beer and wine sales would also help bring more revenue into the suffering state treasury.

Finally, the requirement that bars must provide sales receipts from 2006 should be eliminated. The law should apply equally to established business owners and new entrepreneurs.

The sponsor of this bill is Rep. Carolyn Tomei.

Update 3/3/10:
Here’s another article on the bill from The Lund Report.