Make no mistake: Smoking is a nasty and unfortunate habit.
But so is gambling, drinking, passing gas in public and carrying a gun.
No, wait. Carrying a gun is OK.
Smoking, however, won't be if our local mayors from 10 Hamilton County towns and cities and the county have their way.
The mayors spent part of Monday posing for a photo op to announce the spending of a small portion of tobacco settlement funds for a campaign against smoking in public, complete with billboards and "Thank you for not smoking" signs in public parks and open spaces.
"Tobacco is the No. 1 cause of death that is preventable in the county," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke standing nearby. Coppinger added: "Ten times as many U.S. citizens have died [from] cigarette smoke than have died in all of the wars the U.S. has fought."
Coppinger said he will ask the area's legislative delegation to give local towns the authority to ban smoking in parks and open spaces.
Think Coolidge Park. Think the Walnut Street Bridge. The Tennessee Riverpark. The Fry Fishing Center. Warner Park. Local ball fields.
But the mayors didn't define "public spaces." Is that any public street? Is it Market Street at the sidewalk tables in front of the Read House or behind Warehouse Row? Is it the stands or even parking lot of any of the city's and county's ballfields and soccer fields?
But don't worry.
As long as your gun is the only thing smoking at city parks you'll be OK.
Just don't light up a cigarette.
If you'll recall, our city and county fathers used to have a quite sensible ban against firearms in our city parks and ball fields. But the General Assembly in April — backed heartily by the National Rifle Association — decided it knows more than local leaders and police chiefs about how life should be lived in local towns and cities. They passed statewide legislation specifically voiding city and county rules banning guns in parks.
(That state legislation, by the way, was initially delayed for a few weeks with an amendment to allow guns in the statehouse where the General Assembly meets and works. Of course, the governor and state lawmakers didn't want to worry about guns around them, and ultimately the hypocrisy of lawmakers won out: They stripped out the amendment allowing guns in the Capitol. As for the rest of us? Well, we know their answer: Who cares.)
Now apparently local mayors think they can beat Big Tobacco even if they couldn't beat Big Guns NRA.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was less hopeful for mayors Coppinger, Berke, Katie Lamb of Collegedale, Brent Lambert of East Ridge, Ken Wilkerson of Lakesite, Carol Mutter of Lookout Mountain, John Roberts of Red Bank, Janet Kelley Jobe of Ridgeside, Dick Gee of Signal Mountain, Rick Nunley of Soddy-Daisy, and Bill Trohanis of Walden.
Gardenhire: "Following the precedent we've set on other things, like guns — if we don't allow mayors to make decisions on that, how can we turn around and give it to them on something else? I'm all for doing away with smoking in public spaces — I can't stand it But I think I'd be in the camp of saying, 'sorry guys. It will have to be a statewide [rule]."
As for the likelihood of a statewide public spaces tobacco ban? The senator still is unsure: "I don't know. I haven't seen much out of the tobacco lobby in a while I wonder how much money we bring in on the tobacco tax "
Meanwhile, here in Hamilton County we're spending long- ago awarded tobacco-lawsuit money on this billboard campaign the mayors unveiled. At least one billboard will feature a photo of all of the mayors with the slogan, "The Mayors Say It's Time for a Smoke Free Community."
The billboards will remain up for a month and then be replaced by new ones. Smaller metal signs will be installed at parks and public spaces in the county and the 10 towns saying "Thank You for Not Smoking."
Not "No Smoking," because there is no law to enforce on the 17.6 percent of Hamilton County residents who are current smokers, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's Chronic Disease Health Profile of metropolitan counties in December 2011. (Janie Burley, Tobacco Settlement Fund coordinator with the health department says the number is closer to a quarter of all adults in Hamilton County.)
Even if this is all a function of spending tobacco suit money while it is still available, couldn't we have found a better way to spend it than billboards? But more importantly, isn't public space just as much a space for all of us — even smokers — as for nonsmokers?
We've eliminated a bunch of parking on Broad Street just for bicyclers' rights. Now we want to ban a quarter of our citizens from public spaces if they light up?
Apparently freedom is only free for the in-crowd.
Unless we all have guns, of course.