For Frank Bougher, one of the managers at Riegel's Pipe and Tobacco shop, the proposed legislation by Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, is just the latest attack on a 143-year-old family-owned enterprise. But to customers like Larry Melton, Brown's attempt to eliminate all exemptions from Indiana's 2012 anti-smoking law has even broader implications.
"They've done a good job of trying to 'improve' other people, Larry Melton said sarcastically as he puffed on his cigar in the lounge of Riegel's Covington Plaza store Wednesday. "It's not such a good idea. I can see (outlawing smoking) in restaurants, but I can't imagine coming in here and not expecting to find tobacco. It's like working in a gas station and complaining about fumes."
You could still find tobacco at Riegel's and similar shops statewide if Brown's bill passes; you just couldn't smoke it there or at other places currently exempt from state smoking prohibitions in public places. That includes bars, clubs, places with separate smoking and non-smoking sections and even gambling facilities, where the ability to puff with one hand and lose money with the other seems almost a ritual.
To Bougher, who business suffered when Fort Wayne outlawed smoking in most public facilities in 2007, the possibility that smoking will be outlawed even in tobacco shops — however remote that possibility may be — is beyond annoying.
"It infringes on how we do business. People need a place to go (to smoke) as long as it's legal, and we've carved out a little niche. Fort Wayne's ban (which limits indoor smoking) made us a more seasonal business and made us move into the entertainment business."
Now Brown wants to take even that away, which would also annoy Melton and the cadre of Riegel's regulars who gather in the lounges at the Covington, downtown and Georgetown stores in a setting that bothers only those who can't stand to see other people enjoying themselves.
Even City Councilman John Crawford, an oncologist who spearheaded Fort Wayne's law, questions the need for Brown's bill, which if passed would supersede Fort Wayne's bill, which exempts Riegel's and other tobacco shops. "I think our law is working pretty well here. Nobody's yelled at me in a while because of it," he said, predicting this latest attempt at near-prohibition "won't go anywhere." He's probably right: In the name of the health employees like Bougher, Brown has made similar attempts before, and failed.
But the effort is not made more palatable by its likely futility. Public health is important, but so are personal choice and individual responsibility and liberty. Bougher chooses to work where he works, you must be 18 to enter and signs on the windows alert passersby that smoking is allowed there. Another sign, pointedly, proclaims that "freedom is prized in this establishment."
Why should the state impose a one-size-fits-all ban on communities in which the democratic process has already produced different results? New Haven, for example, allows smoking in bars — which no doubt is one reason Hoosier Park spent a lot of money to open its Winner's Circle off-track betting facility there in 2015. But unlike Winner's Circle, other businesses have decided to go smoke-free on their own — most notably Rack & Helen's, which spent $70,000 on a state-of-the-art ventilation system during a $1.5 million modernization several years ago but went smoke-free in 2014 in response to customers' wishes.
Bougher, Melton and countless other Hoosiers don't wish to be protected from their own perfectly legal cigars and pipes, and their wishes are no less legitimate or worthy of respect. And, really, does forcing smokers to congregate in the parking lot in sub-zero weather really protect their health? Does endangering legal enterprises that pay taxes, create jobs and satisfy their customers really benefit the state's overall well-being?
Even if this law fails, some lawmakers' pietistic impulses never really go away, and you shouldn't have to be a libertarian to develop a headache over all this nanny state meddling. But have no fear: At the same time he's trying to snuff out your cigar, he's also authored a bill to allow the use of medical marijuana.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.