Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

SAT 3-29-6 EDITORIAL >> Smoking on front-burner

Who says political expediency makes bad government? Reversing years of resiliency for the tobacco industry, Gov. Huckabee said this week that he will ask the legislature at a special session next month to outlaw smoking in most of the workplaces of Arkansas.

Nine years into his incumbency, why would the governor suddenly propose a rigid antismoking law at a special session that is supposed to deal with school funding?

Could it have anything to do with his effort to carve a niche for himself as the good-health candidate in the Republican presidential stakes? Of course it does, but why should we care about his motives?

Last year, Huckabee changed his mind about not banning high-fat foods and soft drinks in public school vending machines, disappointing the bottlers and vendors who had been big financial supporters. The public benefited.

Several years ago, the state Board of Health adopted a rule banning smoking in restaurants because the secondhand smoke impaired the health of employees and customers.

Gov. Huckabee agreed that it was a health threat, but he vetoed the rule.
He would have borne all the anger from smokers and the tobacco industry.
Now lawmakers will share the onus with him if the smoking bill passes.

But he will not be running again for state office. The government regulation will sit no better with small-government conservatives than his other expanded-government initiatives, but it will burnish his credentials as the politician who might do something about the health crisis.

The workplace-smoking ban is not a certainty in the Arkansas Legislature, which has been loath to impose rules on businesses.

It will be argued that government is becoming too much the nanny by trying to control personal habits and dictating the working conditions in private businesses, decisions that should properly be left to owners and managers.

But for more than a century, government has taken a hand in protecting safety and health in the workplace, from restaurant kitchens to assembly lines, and the public accepts that role and relies upon it. Protecting the air that workers breathe is a logical extension now that the invidious effect of secondhand smoke is incontrovertible. Next, Gov. Huckabee will tell us that he is for a single-payer universal health insurance system.

That will be the day he leaves the Republican Party. For now, let us wish him Godspeed with the smoking ban.