Smoked out

Jun 3, 2009 at 12:00 am

Last week I went to the Emory, a popular bar and eatery just south of Nine Mile Road in Ferndale. Reliable sources told me the hamburgers were supposed to be great, and my last remaining major career goal is to eat at every local restaurant on Woodward Avenue before they embalm me.

Well, my sources were right about the burgers. They were great. But I won't be going back there, at least not until the state Legislature does the right thing and enacts a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. The Emory has a nonsmoking section, all right, and that's where we sat. But the smell of stale cigarette smoke was everywhere. After we left, I could still smell it in my fellow restaurant reviewer's hair. She told me she would have to send her clothes to the cleaners.

That might be a small price to pay, however, if we got out with our lungs intact. Medical experts disagree on just how many of us are killed by secondhand smoke, but nobody disputes that it is a lot. The California EPA estimates there are between 35,000 and 62,000 such deaths in the nation every year, most from heart disease. Even at the lower end, that means more than a thousand people died as a result of secondhand smoke in Michigan last year. (That's more than three times the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in 2008.)

Smokers, at least those with an IQ high enough to melt ice, know they risk killing themselves painfully. However, nonsmokers do nothing to deserve being sickened and killed by the poison smokers pour into the atmosphere. Now, most states have recognized how extremely stupid an idea allowing public smoking is. Thirty-seven of them have outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants. Some have done so in all public places. Sadly, Michigan lags behind, even though polls show the vast majority of us want a smoking ban; only about one-fifth of the population smokes any more.

So why don't we have a ban? Politics, that's why. Last week, the Michigan House of Representatives overwhelmingly (73-31) passed a bill that would ban smoking in most places, including bars and restaurants. The only exemptions would be cigar bars, tobacco retail shops and casinos. This makes a certain amount of sense, since the first two establishments cater to people who are determined to attempt to kill themselves. People who go to the casinos are normally only merely bent on financially ruining themselves and their families.

However, there is apparently evidence that business in Detroit's casinos is up significantly — some say by one-third — since Windsor enacted a total smoking ban. In other words, Michigan, or at least the casino interests, benefits from being located close to a civilized country. Gov. Jennifer Granholm says she will sign a smoking ban if the Michigan Senate will simply pass one. So will the Senate? Almost certainly, yes … if they ever vote on it. But as of now, that's not happening. Here's why: Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a right-wing Republican from Rochester Hills, doesn't want any smoking ban. (It would be interesting to research whether the pro-smoking lobby has donated to his campaigns.)

In the past, Bishop has managed to prevent the Senate from voting on any smoking ban bill. Why? Because he can. However, last year he ran into a slight problem: Tom George, a fellow state senator from Kalamazoo.

George is, on most issues, as hopelessly reactionary as the other 20 GOP senators. But he is a medical doctor and knows how much harm secondhand smoke can do. He wants a smoking ban. So, under pressure, Bishop said that he would allow a vote on a smoking ban bill — but only on one that calls for a total ban. Bishop is gambling that House Democrats would never pass a bill calling for a total ban, because he figures they are beholden to the casino interests. So that's where we are. Interestingly, last week the University of Michigan released a major new report examining the effects of a smoking ban for bars and restaurants in 24 of the states that had enacted one. What happened to them? 

They suffered no decline in business as a result. In some cases, they did more. Casinos did show some revenue drops in some areas, stayed constant in other places. Overall, there seems to be no reason to think a smoking ban would have any negative effect on Michigan's hospitality industry. No, all it would do is tend to keep people alive. What's needed now is to bring a lot of pressure on the state Senate — especially the Republicans — to force a vote on this bill. There are some immature Democrats too, who are insisting on all or nothing. But in politics, you don't get everything you want, especially not with the first whack at it. If the bill doesn't pass, people will keep dying.

Actually, the casino interests ought to back this smoking ban. If it fails, state Sen. Ray Basham (D-Taylor) will launch a petition drive to get a total smoking ban on the ballot next year. If he does, it is virtually certain to pass.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, a few thousand more people will get unnecessary death sentences, and the Michigan Legislature will look more stupid and impotent than ever.

Intellectually bankrupt:
Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, is the most remarkable nominee we've seen in a long time. She grew up in a housing project, went to Princeton, then to Yale Law School. Sotomayor has vast experience as a judge, and her record shows that she's brilliant, hardworking, compassionate and nonpartisan.

Basically, her nomination ought to sail through, unless evidence is suddenly produced that she is a secret agent for the Romulan Empire. Republicans, however, are determined to try to bring her down. Why? Simple. They and their party no longer stand for anything — except an immense pool of negativity and character assassination. They can only succeed when they bring the other party down. They have no program of their own.

Unfortunately for them, her legal record looks pretty unassailable. The Republicans are trying to make hay out of a case in which she was part of a 7-6 majority on a federal appeals court that upheld New Haven, Connecticut's decision to throw out a job promotion exam no African-Americans had passed.

However, last week, the geniuses of the GOP thought they finally had found the goods on the good judge. Eight years ago, during a speech at the University of California-Berkeley, she said that we are all the product of our own backgrounds. "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who has not lived that life." Has-beens and hypocrites like Newt Gingrich went berserk, acting as if she had called for deporting all of them to Northumbria.

Any normal person ought to realize the imbecility of making a fuss over this; most of us have said or thought eight dumber or more politically incorrect things since breakfast. However, I suspect I know what's really bothering Gingrich. Like him, I am a white male of Anglo-Saxon genetic material, and have been one longer than Sotomayor has been a Latina.

The worst part of what she has said is that ... it is mostly true.