John Johnson sits on a bar stool, looking tough enough to chew nails. And I don't mean fingernails. He wants to talk about personal freedom, a subject that everyone seems to favor and yet still argues over the meaning of.
Freedom's battles once were fought over things like religion and slavery. Now we fight them over wearing motorcycle helmets and smoking cigarettes in bars. Johnson has been in the bar business since 1972 and now owns four in Orange County. Next week he goes to court for refusing to honor the state law that bans smoking in establishments such as his.
Johnson contends that his bars should be exempted because they have five or fewer employees (which he and his attorney say the law stipulates), but his passion stems from a larger cause.
"If we're going to be a free society, if that's our goal--and everybody touts this as a free society--there's going to be risk involved," he says. "Society has to understand that without freedom, there is no risk. With freedom, there is risk. Liberty involves risk. Liberty involves informed choice. What is society willing to pay to have freedom?"
Adults know about the risks of smoking, Johnson says, and can make informed choices about working in or patronizing smoky bars. Since the majority of his employees and customers smoke, the state is protecting adults from themselves, he says.
"It's all part of the nanny state," he says. "You do what we tell you, be a good boy, give us your money, and we'll take care of you cradle to grave."
Johnson says he's never smoked. Nor do his wife and children. If his customers clamored for smoke-free bars, he says, he'd accommodate them. People who don't want to be bothered by smoke have a perfect right to choose another bar, he says. Conversely, he doesn't oppose smoking bans in public facilities where people must conduct business, such as the courthouse or Department of Motor Vehicles.
I know which way the wind is blowing on smoking, but Johnson strikes that libertarian chord in me that dislikes laws requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets for adults. I grant the laws' pragmatic value (we all pay for their injuries, etc.), but I bridle at their intrusion on personal freedom. Yes, some freedoms are sacrificed in a society, but which ones?
Johnson almost got me.
What hangs me up is the health of bar workers, whose protection from secondhand smoke was one selling point of the new law.
When I raise that point with Johnson, he says his employees willingly signed waivers saying they're willing to work in smoky areas.
I don't dispute they did so willingly, but I can easily imagine some other bar under some other owner where an employee might feel coerced to sign such a waiver. If so, that would run counter to Johnson's presumption that each adult makes an informed choice about his or her safety.
Then there's the issue of secondhand smoke as a health hazard.
Marilyn Pritchard, the head of the county's anti-tobacco program, says that every major health organization in the country--the same ones relied on for information about any other health issue--concurs about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
The anti-smoking law was passed to protect employees, Pritchard says. What if, she asks, a bar owner had five employees and one didn't smoke? "What pressure would that one be under if the employer went to them and said, 'The other four don't care; do you really care?' "
Johnson would argue that potential employees who don't like smoke could seek out a smoke-free bar. If enough people did that, the free-market system would produce smoke-free bars, he says.
Like I said, he almost got me. I agree with virtually everything he says.
But he loses me by a whisker.
The whisker is that, unlike Johnson, I accept the judgment that secondhand smoke is harmful. Even so, I could still side with Johnson but for one thing. Using his argument, he'd have to concede that market forces could result in all bars remaining smoky havens. If that were so, there surely would be cases in which employees had to take jobs that threatened their health, because they wouldn't have smoke-free options.
And just as the government increasingly has protected workers in other dangerous environments, so can it justify protecting employees in smoky bars.
Having said that, I'd concede Johnson's point that, in reality, an employee not wanting to work around smoke probably could find another bar. Working in a smoky bar isn't tantamount to working in the only coal mine in town, or the only chemical plant. Dozens of other bars probably could provide employment.
Whiskers and technicalities and imagined scenarios.
I've just given myself a major headache.
And I don't even smoke.
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821, by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail at email@example.com.