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Legal Smokescreen 

Guess who's coming to dinner -- and fighting to keep smoking in restaurants?

Pity Allegheny County's poor smokers, for they are addicted to nicotine. Pity the poor bar and restaurant owners, for they fear their income will decrease if a countywide smoking ban is instituted. Pity the poor nonsmokers, for they merely seek an atmosphere without poisonous gas circulating nearby. Pity the poor county councilors, for they struggled long and hard to balance the economic interests of business with the health concerns of customers and staff.

But Big Tobacco can go straight to hell.

Because one thing we can all agree on is that Big Tobacco is evil. Pure evil. Dr. Evil. More evil than Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. More evil than Jack Nicholson in The Shining. More evil than the neo-cons who got us into this disaster in Iraq.

OK, that last one's a toss-up. But I'm really annoyed that we can't figure out this nonsmoking ordinance thing without R.J. Reynolds meddling in our affairs.

If you haven't been following this, the Allegheny County Council passed a nonsmoking ordinance for bars and restaurants. There are a few amendments allowing for some small bars to be exempt, and allowing people to smoke five feet from building entrances, but by and large the ordinance is a good thing. It's a progressive thing. And man, do we need a few progressive things, so we don't appear so freakin' Flinstoney to the outside world. Or to the inside world, for that matter.

We went through all the twists and turns of this debate: How come restaurants can't decide for themselves? Where will it end? People don't have to work in restaurants with smoking if they don't want to! Blah, blah, blah.

Finally -- amazingly, considering the backward nature of this region -- the county councilors figured it out: Health trumps all. Smoke bad, clean air good. Smoking ban instituted. Hoo-freaking-ray.

But noooooo. Suddenly there's word of a lawsuit challenging the ban, a suit filed by two restaurant/bars Downtown.

I was flabbergasted initially, but I thought, well, it's a free country. They've got First Amendment and legal rights like anyone else. What the hell. Hopefully a judge will rapidly dispose of this nonsense and I can breathe the next time I go to a restaurant.

The plaintiffs are Mitchell's Bar and Restaurant and the Smithfield Café. I don't know that I've ever been to either, but I'm picturing a lot of wrinkly-faced old-schoolers who loves them some cancer smoke with their coffee. (I used to smoke, so I'm a hypocrite. But at least I figured out breathing poison gas for a small buzz is moronic.)

A couple of days after the lawsuit was filed, though, the truth came out. Who's paying the legal bills -- which could be substantial -- for this lawsuit, which was supposedly filed by David restaurateurs vs. the Goliath of county government? The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, out of Winston-Salem, N.C.

I believe we all remember Big Tobacco's various efforts to shield us from the fact that cigarettes cause lung cancer. My mother is in the hospital right now, coughing up crap from cigarettes she smoked decades ago. No one forced her to smoke. But it's one more painful reminder to me of how evil and insidious tobacco is. And you can't get any more evil and insidious than the people who produce this product.

Big Tobacco has filed lawsuits in several communities to try to defeat, or at least delay, the implementation of anti-smoking statutes. In the great majority of these cases, they've lost, according to Bronson Frick, of the Americans for Non-smokers Rights in Berkeley, Calif.

As Frick reminded me, we were once able to smoke on airplanes and in grocery stores. Laws were passed, and now you can't do that any more. But people still fly. People still buy food. I'm done trying to convince the drug addicts -- those would be your cigarette smokers -- that their right to smoke stops at my nose, since secondhand smoke can damage my health too.

Communities and states, including New York, Rhode Island, Florida, California and even freaking Wheeling, W.Va., have passed smoking bans. Can't we do anything progressive in this town without the forces of evil mucking it up?

Big Tobacco's goin' down. Muck them.

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