Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ban the Ashtray Ads

I don’t smoke. I never have. It’s just one habit that always struck me as too filthy and smelly to bother with.

So a part of me is eagerly awaiting Tuesday, when a new Illinois law takes effect that, for all practical purposes, bans smoking of tobacco products in public places.

But in recent weeks, there has been a television commercial airing on stations in the Chicago area. I would guess it is airing across the state, as well. It is an American Cancer Society public awareness spot that tries to illustrate how much happier life will be without cigarette stench in public.

A sudden swift kick, however, is the gut feeling I get every time I see the television spot. If I feel that reaction, I can easily imagine the smoking dimwits of the world seeing this ad and becoming even more enraged and determined to try to do something.

The television spot tries to depict a world without smoking where ashtrays are now obsolete.

A narrator talks about how people all across Illinois were forced to brainstorm for creative uses for their now useless ashtrays. We get to see the sight of people growing plants in them and kids using them as pucks to play hockey.

The most disturbing image, in my mind, is the sight of a woman hanging a Christmas holiday wreath on her home’s front door, with about a half-dozen ashtrays woven into the wreath. The woman turns to the camera and flashes us a big smile, as though all is right with the world.


To me, using such an image trivializes the seriousness of the issue. The last thing any real person would ever do with an ashtray is turn it into holiday cheer. The image is just too absurd for the spot to be taken seriously.

I also fear the fact that it will stir up the anger of smokers, who already are trying to turn this issue into a case of their civil rights being violated.

Think I’m exaggerating? I recently stumbled across a new weblog written by a St. Louis man who believes Illinois’ new law will inspire Missouri officials to follow suit. Noting that Illinois sits right across the Mississippi River from the Arch and downtown St. Louis, he equates his ability to smoke a cigar in a restaurant with “freedom and property rights.”

I doubt he’s alone.

A group calling itself Illinois Smokers’ Rights has arisen, claiming the new law violates the provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allow people the freedom to peaceably assemble in groups of their choosing.

What bothers me about this silly, trivial public awareness television spot is that it will stir up these people a lot more than necessary. I’m waiting for the first protest march by smokers seeking their “constitutional right” to ruin my meal with their tobacco stench.

They would have the support of corporate America. Many professional organizations representing the service industry, such as restaurants, lobbied hard against the new law, claiming they would lose too many customers who want to smoke.

The riverboat casino industry has been among those to complain about the new law, saying their business will suffer because they just can’t imagine a world where people lose their money without the stink of burnt tobacco lingering in the air.

For what it’s worth, Illinois Smokers’ Rights is part of a larger coalition of groups in 12 states that are trying to persuade corporate entities to cut off charitable contributions to the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association -- all because those groups support the idea of statewide smoking bans.

Personally, I see smoking in public as the legal equivalent of that old saying, “Your right to swing your arms about freely ends at the tip of my nose.” I think my right to inhale as few noxious fumes in public as possible outweighs whatever pleasure you might derive from tobacco.

I don’t like this ad because it feels like needless piling on. We won this fight. The smoking bans enacted by Chicago and assorted suburbs in recent years gain added strength because their standard is now the law of the land, not just their isolated communities.

I almost fear that smoking in restaurants is going to become a conservative cause similar to Chief Illiniwek, the “honored symbol” (he’s really a mascot) of the University of Illinois at Urbana.

There were many years worth of verbal brawls between American Indian activists and the old-line alums who were willing to defend their right to have a white kid dress up as an Indian chief and do a dance that bore as much resemblance to native tradition as a document that has been photocopied six or seven times, losing something each generation.

I believe that if the student body at Illinois had decided the issue without the outside influences, the Chief would have been seen as a silly anachronism and would have died off years ago with little note from the public.

Now if only the idea of lighting up a cigar in a restaurant could do the same.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a link to the weblog called “Keep St. Louis Free.” I think he’s wrong, but you can decide for yourself.

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