Walking by a tavern in the late evening, seeing smokers clumped outside the door, their shoulders hunched in the cold, puffing furtively, I'm not sure what to think. In the temper of our times, I suppose I should be pitying, maybe even scornful, looking down my nose at the wretches, slave to a demon weed, weak wastrels that they are.
This moral superiority is becoming the public policy of our times. First in small steps, now in lurches, we are banning smoking in public places, even in businesses that do not cater to the general public. In certain jurisdictions, we have expanded the smoking-free zone to the great outdoors, isolating smokers to colonies distant from public doors. Can the day be far ahead when smoking on sidewalks becomes forbidden?
All this is so different from the early 1970s. Colleges had ashtrays on desks, and if not, we snubbed out our Marlboros, Winstons and Kools on the linoleum floors. Students smoked, professors smoked, and if you didn't smoke, too bad. You smelled like an ashtray anyway.
In hindsight it's easy enough to see this thoughtlessness for the tyranny that it was. A fundamental civility was absent. Every bar was a smoking bar, and non-smoking sections in restaurants were curiosities. Smoking was accepted even inside grocery stores.
Then the surgeon general rained on the party. The response wasn't immediate, but it was steady. One by one, ashtrays began disappearing. Soon, smoking sections were designated. Even lighting up in a smoking section on one side of a restaurant you felt like you were crossing a double-yellow line. Something once widely accepted was becoming impolite, on the way to illegal.
My own career as a smoker ended 10 years ago this month. That's not so long ago that I've forgotten the supreme pleasure of fumbling for the pack of cigarettes, whacking it against my hand, putting a stick in my pursed lips, then striking a match with practiced authority, cupping the flame as if standing in a Wyoming windstorm. Then, there was a moment of bliss while inhaling deeply and feeling the calming effect of the narcotic.
Do I miss this as I stroll by those smokers, now exiled out the front door or beyond? It still smells good to me, almost as wonderful as a mulberry bush in bloom, though fortunately not good enough to seriously entice me. Daily I have cause to rue my long-term smoking habit. I also remember the gut-wrenching struggle to quit. That alone is enough to keep me on the clear-air side of the smoking partition.
In Colorado, that non-smoking partition was moved dramatically last year, leaving only casinos, a Denver airport lounge, and tobacco stores open to smokers. Many other Western states have followed or are likely to do so.
This new wrist-slapping law is supposed to benefit waiters, bartenders and others, who no longer have to inhale tainted, secondhand oxygen. And it does. It's supposed to benefit consumers, including me. And it has. The beanery down the street, where the guy used to show up every morning, fidgeting his way through the New York Times and a half-pack of "nicotine-delivery systems"- as the cigarette makers put it - has become more pleasant. The world for non-smokers has broadened.
But the new law is not a compromise. We've become as intolerant as we once were permissive. The choices for consenting adults have narrowed. Vietnam, Korean, and World War II vets, once rewarded with cigarettes for their sacrifices, have been chased out of their lounges at the American Legion and VFW posts. A tavern devoted to consenting, smoking adults is virtually impossible. The pendulum has swung too far.
Where once in our nation's history we allowed cigarettes but banned beer, now we allow beer but ban cigarettes.
I see no good coming from efforts to nudge society too close to perfection. Newspapers and our history books are thick with horrors committed in the name of perfection. I distrust the impulse altogether. Where to draw the lines of compromise - that's the difficult task of justice. But I believe we need room for a few smoky taverns. I don't need to go into them; I just want the choice.
• Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Denver, Colorado.