Clear the smoke - but don't snuff out rights

OREGONIANS are an independent lot. And they don't like to let monied interests deter them from protecting their grandiose environment and conserving their rich natural resources. A few years back, in fact, a society was formed to urge out-of-staters to visit Oregon - but not to relocate there. This only partly tongue-in-cheek movement was aimed mainly at Californians.

Oregonians pride themselves on being out front. That's why they were first to turn off the lights on public billboards and stop up gasoline pumps during the national energy crunch in the mid-1970s. The nation got the message and many other states followed suit.

Now the land of Lewis and Clark is exploring new ventures in terms of snuffing out tobacco in its public facilities. Oregon voters may or may not make a difference in the quest for the White House Nov. 8. But they are almost certain to have an impact on antismoking laws nationwide if they stamp approval on ``Measure 6'' on the ballot that day.

This initiative, if passed, would be the toughest state restriction on cigarette smoking anywhere in the United States. It would wipe out designated smoking areas and ban smoking in virtually all indoor work areas and enclosed places frequented by the public. This might also include professional offices in private homes. Violators could be fined up to $250.

Tobacco use would still be allowed in bars, tobacco stores, and hotel rooms.

Smoking bans are not new to Oregon or the rest of the nation. Thirty-five states restrict smoking in a wide variety of public places, with designated smoking and no smoking areas. Among them, Oregon's 1981 Indoor Clean Air Act makes public buildings off limits to smokers, except in ``designated smoking areas.''

Measure 6 would be the first in the nation to drop designated areas. This distinction is important, because it focuses the issue on the rights of smokers rather than those of nonsmokers. And many believe elimination of designated areas for smokers would be an infringement on civil rights.

Put aside for the moment whether smoking is good for your health and pocketbook. Obviously it is not. And shelve for now concerns about pollution of the atmosphere by those who puff cigarettes.

The issue is: Do smokers have a right to have a place to smoke? One's heart may say no, but one's head insists on some thoughtful consideration.

Former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts faced this dilemma. Roberts is a well-known civil rights advocate. She ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for governor and the US Senate. The politician/judge is not a smoker and does not support the habit. She holds little brief for the tobacco companies.

What bothers her, however, is how far government should be allowed to intrude on personal choices.

Roberts reluctantly opposed Measure 6 - and sent out a letter to thousands of Oregonians urging them to defeat it - on the grounds that it ``raises justified questions about government police power over what is, otherwise, a legal activity.''

She warned that if the initiative passes, it would ``authorize search warrants to root out evidence of illegal smoking, and even bring about police arrests of citizens who ignore fines.

Supporters of the measure insist that such fears are unfounded. Gerry Odisio, who represents the Oregon Lung Association, which led a successful petition drive to put Measure 6 on the ballot, says the law would be self-enforcing - with the understanding that most citizens are law-abiding.

Tobacco interests are suggesting that restrictions on the civil liberties of smokers could lead to other government regulations on individual rights, such as attendance at noisy rock concerts or eating foods deemed unhealthful.

The latter is probably so much smoke (if you'll excuse the pun). Smoking bans are not a whiff away from a totalitarian society.

If Measure 6 passes, it will almost certainly result in efforts by antismoking lobbies to place similar initiatives on state ballots elsewhere. In the end, the courts will likely be asked to be the final arbiters of the rights question.

A Thursday column

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