National Catholic Register


Egad! Do You See What She’s Doing in Her Car?!

BY John Burger

November 18-24, 2007 Issue | Posted 11/13/07 at 4:23 PM


My father was a lifelong smoker and plainspoken New Yorker. Protests regarding his smoking in the house or the car were often met with a shrug. After all, he came from an era when smoking was common everywhere — home, office, you name it.

It was as natural as it is today to talk on your hands-free cell phone while walking across 42nd Street.

He continued his habit into the new age of growing anti-tobacco sentiment, as a TV ad urged husbands and boyfriends to “give her a kiss instead” (of letting her smoke) and lapel buttons sprang up with the slogan “Thank You for Not Smoking.”

He became alarmed when the government banned cigarette manufacturers from advertising their products on TV, warning anyone who would listen that it set a dangerous precedent of government interfering with people’s liberties and with free enterprise.

At the same time, he knew where the line had to be drawn when speaking of personal “liberty.”

Efforts to legalize abortion gained momentum in the 1960s, finding early success in his own home state. Like many good and decent Americans, he must have felt frustrated that his protests were not having any effect in stemming the tide of legal baby-killing and that all arguments on behalf of unborn life and common sense were steamrolled by the votes of a nine-man panel of judges in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.

Can I blame him, then, for a remark that on at least one occasion embarrassed the heck out of me?

I don’t remember the setting, but obviously he was smoking in public. It must have been sometime in the 1970s. A young woman nearby, with long blond hair, large-rim glasses and a tight-fitting T-shirt offered an unsolicited and somewhat sour, “Smoking is bad for you, you know!”

My father, as if he had already mentally rehearsed his repartee, shot back coolly, “So is abortion.”

I think I was as stunned as she was. “Where did that come from?” I thought.

But now that I’ve had so many years to think about it, I know where it came from.

Likewise, I couldn’t fully appreciate all the times he would drop his newspaper to his lap and utter, with a cigarette burning in the ashtray next to him, “They’re taking all our rights away from us” or “They always go after the easy targets — the smokers” (that would be a reference to yet another new “sin tax”).

Or the time he applauded a well-known cardinal at the time who commented that, with all the anti-smoking frenzy about, he felt like taking up smoking again.

I could not help thinking of all this when I heard that California has now banned smoking in a car where minors are present. I’d heard of such proposals in the past, but could hardly believe such a law would be passed.

It’s understandable that states and municipalities would ban smoking in common places such as offices and restaurants, but in your own car? A car is private property. How can the government interfere with the lifestyle choice you make therein? What’s next, your house?

Yet, there it is: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB7 into law Oct. 10, providing for a $100 fine for anyone found with a lit cigarette of tobacco “or any other plant” in a car with a child under 18.

And California, it turns out, is not the first state to enact such legislation. Arkansas and Louisiana have similar laws on the books.

The motivation behind such laws, apparently, is to protect young lungs from allegedly dangerous second-hand smoke. We’ve already cleared the air in other places young people frequent — schools, movie theaters, bars. Let’s go one step farther and protect kids, especially infants, from possibly hours in a closed-up, smoky vehicle.

After all, we rein in personal “liberty” in all sorts of legitimate ways: We don’t allow drunk driving, we require the use of seat belts and we prohibit speeding.

Though one could argue that smoking is merely a lifestyle choice that does not put one’s life at risk in an immediate way, as drunk driving does, it certainly does seem like a good idea to regulate activity that can be harmful to others, especially those too young to be able to operate a window switch or those whose protests might be met, because of their age, with a shrug, as ours were when we were young.

But still, I can’t help but think of the irony here. A state that is as liberal as California is when it comes to protecting a “woman’s right to choose” is ignoring that principle when it comes to a smoker’s right to choose. True, the smoker’s action may harm others upon whom the smoker imposes second-hand smoke, but then my father’s voice rings in my ears:

“Smoking is bad for you.”

“So is abortion.”

Several years ago, “My body, my choice,” was a pro-abortion mantra. The unborn child took a backseat to the liberated woman’s choice. If that logic can stand, why not “My car, my choice,” that is, my choice to smoke in my car, even if there’s a child with me?

I contacted some of the legislators behind SB7, such as Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, who introduced the legislation, and the bill’s principal co-author, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys. I did so because, according to NARAL Pro-Choice California’s reckoning, each of the bill’s main backers is a “pro-choice” legislator. Planned Parenthood of California also grades most of them as 100% pro-choice.

“Your new law puts a higher value on a child’s health than a person’s right to smoke wherever and whenever he chooses,” I said. “And yet NARAL calls you a pro-choice legislator. You obviously feel a child’s health and well-being is more important than a person’s freedom to choose — to smoke. Will you apply the same logic the next time an abortion law is considered?”

A spokesman for one senator told me, “That’s a tough line to walk.”

Jack Cashill, author of the new book What’s the Matter With California? proffers an explanation.

“When progressive Californians abandoned any real belief in eternal life, they began to sacralize the here and now,” he told me. “This trend is on full display in the cult of the environment, of which the anti-smoking fetish is a raging subset. You would hope that they would see the Orwellian doublethink involved in this ambivalence about ‘choice’ but such hope credits them with more coherence than they have yet to show.”

Or perhaps, as my father always felt, smokers are an easy target.

John Burger is the

Register’s news editor.