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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A Smoke-Free Column

On Monday, the St. Clair (IL) County Board unanimously passed a resolution encouraging all public places in the county to ban smoking in their establishments. They're not requiring it, they're just recommending it.

That's like not passing a law at all. Why not replace the Speed Limit signs with Suggested Speed signs? We'd rather you didn't drive 85mph through this school zone, but we're not going to stop you.

Whenever someone proposes making all workplaces smoke free, including restaurants and bars, opponents argue that it will hurt those businesses because smokers won't patronize them anymore. However, new data from Maryland and Florida, combined with recent stats from Florida, Delaware, California, and New York City (all of which have such regulations) shows that smoke free laws do not hurt the restaurant and bar business.

The economic collapse theory is simply false.

I could see an impact argument being made if only one small municipality banned smoking. Then, smokers might simply go to an adjacent town for dinner or a drink. But if it's done on a countywide or statewide basis, people are not going to drive from, say, Missouri to Illinois, just so they can light one up after a meal. Besides, smokers can still enjoy that after dinner cigarette outside the restaurant, or in their car.

While the debate on the dangers of second hand smoke continues, there can be no argument that smoking is an activity that is extremely annoying to non smokers. Name for me one other activity that annoys others as much as smoking, yet is still permitted and tolerated in eating and drinking establishments. You wouldn't want me blowing an air horn into your ear, would you?

Smokers also argue that their rights are being trampled. Since when does the right of a few to foul the air come before the right of everyone to breathe clean air?

On my radio show, a listener pointed out how, if such a law were enacted here, it would be silly to be able to buy a pack of cigarettes from a machine in a bar, and then not be able to smoke one of those cigarettes in that bar. I countered that it would only seem odd if you didn't take into account all the other places where the rule already applies -- supermarkets, drug stores, even Wal-Mart!

There's no doubt that airplanes are much more pleasant since smoking was banned onboard. So are movie theaters, offices, and most other places. Why not extend that pleasant atmosphere to bars, restaurants, and casinos, too? I can tell you from personal experience how much better it is to play poker in the local casinos since they barred smoking from those rooms a couple of years ago. Too bad that hasn't been expanded to the rest of the casino yet.

Yes, cigarettes are legal, and I'm not one of those who thinks they should be made illegal -- in fact, I think you should have the right to put whatever you want into your own body! -- but your right to use a legal product should end where it infringes on my right to have dinner or a drink or play blackjack without going home with my clothes smelling like an ashtray just because I sat next to you.

Friday, June 04, 2004

No Cupcakes For You!

Birthday celebrations at an elementary school in Duxbury, Massachusetts, can no longer include cupcakes, donuts, or other treats. According to a story in the Boston Globe, school officials say the change was prompted by a survey in which parents said good nutrition is one of their top priorities. I call it an over-reaction, not unlike the misinterpretations of other surveys.

For example, you've seen how much time is devoted to weather on local TV newscasts. That's because the stations do research asking viewers what's most important to them. People often rank weather as their number one concern. So the stations expand the weather coverage to five, sometimes ten, minutes of weather -- complete with explanations of the sub-tropical jet stream, an occluded front in Canada, and the 13-day forecast.

But that's not what viewers want! When viewers say they want to know the weather, they mean they want to know what the weather will be today, tonight, and maybe tomorrow. That takes about 60 seconds to report. All the rest of the time is wasted on showing off their cool graphics package -- the doppler storm front decoder, the swooping climatological map, and -- my favorite -- the lightning strikes indicator (because it's important to sit in front of your TV and see where lightning is occurring?).

News directors would tell you this is all in the name of: 1) science; and 2) serving the viewers' needs. No, in reality, it's in the name of: 1) looking cooler than the competition so people won't tune away; and 2) misinterpreting the viewers' needs. When we say we want to know what the weather will be, we mean will it be sunny, or will it rain? Will it be warm, or should I wear a jacket? Is it going to snow, and how much?

Similarly, the school has misinterpreted the parents' responses to the survey. Of course, Mom and Dad care about their children's nutrition (if they didn't, would they admit it?). But that doesn't mean they want to have cupcakes removed from birthday celebrations and replaced with celery sticks and boxes of raisins -- especially those little boxes with 32 raisins that always come out in one inseparable clump!

The school's action is part of the recent hysteria over childhood obesity, but their emphasis is misplaced. That battle could be fought more effectively by giving the kids more opportunities to run around and burn off some calories. Too many schools have crammed their days so full that they have cut down on recess and gym class, ignoring the physical education side of the healthy child equation.

To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, I say, "Let'em eat cupcakes!" How sad it would be to hear a second-grade teacher say instead, "Happy Birthday, Ashley! Now help me pass out the fruit kabobs!"

Weather permitting, of course.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

They Did The Time, But Not The Crime

For years, I've been advocating compensation for people who serve long prison sentences for crimes they did not commit, when DNA evidence proves their innocence and they are finally released. It's hard to put a price on having your freedom taken away and being shoved into the brutality of prison life, but the state must do more than offer a simply "Whoops, we're sorry!"

That's why I was happy to see an op-ed by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce on the subject today. Interestingly, this represents a 180-degree turn from her previous position. A couple of years ago, she (and her predecessor, Dee Joyce-Hayes) fought tooth and nail to keep DNA evidence from being used to exonerate several men charged with horrible crimes. The attorneys at The Innocence Project finally overcame that stonewalling, had the DNA tested, and proved that at least a couple of guys (Larry Johnson and Lonnie Erby) serving serious prison time had not done the crimes they'd been convicted of.

A new law working its way through the Missouri legislature would pay such victims $50/day for every day in prison. That's a start, but as Vanessa Potkin of The Innocence Project said today on my radio show, it's not enough, particularly when compared with California and Tennessee, both of which pay $100/day, up to a million dollars.

What's worse, criminal in fact, is that this new law specifically excludes Johnson, Erby, and a third guy named Steve Toney -- the only men in Missouri history to be exonerated by DNA evidence after serving time in prison! That would be like passing a law on September 12, 2001, that all future victims of massive terrorism in the US would be compensated, but not those injured or killed on 9/11. So, here you have these three guys who have been wronged by the state, who are now being screwed again!

Joyce wrote that the current Missouri bill wouldn't cost the taxpayers anything because the compensation would be funded by convicted felons paying a court surcharge. But Potkin wonders what happens if there's a claim and the fund isn't large enough? What if there's only $100,000 and there are three valid claimants -- do they get the short end of the stick yet again?

Larry Johnson was behind bars for 18 years for a crime he didn't commit. Lonnie Erby served 17 years of a 115-year sentence for a rape he had nothing to do with. Put yourself in their place and imagine what it would take to compensate you for all that time in a cell, fighting for your life every day, missing your kids as they grew. The taxpayers didn't shed a tear paying for their incarceration; we should do the right thing and help pay for their freedom -- with money, job training, whatever it takes.

Consider it Missouri's version of "The Shawshank Redemption."