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Originally published Wednesday, November 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

The authoritarian odor of I-901

That canny old Communist, Deng Xiaoping, once exhaled a lungful of burnt tobacco in the presence of Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a headstrong woman...

That canny old Communist, Deng Xiaoping, once exhaled a lungful of burnt tobacco in the presence of Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a headstrong woman who, Deng knew, hated smoke. China's leader did not cotton to criticism about human rights, and he wanted to make a point. He said, "In my country people are very free. Our people are not oppressed."

This was dung of another spelling, but Deng was having fun. He sucked down another hit of Nicotiana tabacum and exhaled, saying, "I understand that in some countries people who smoke are isolated in special rooms."

That was in 1979, when nicotine addicts in America were just starting to be isolated in special rooms. A few years later, they were driven outside to huddle around doorways. Now comes Initiative 901, which would drive smokers out of every restaurant, tavern and bar and 25 feet from every entrance or open window. It is unreasonable. It is also mean.

Taverns and bars are places for the enjoyment of lawful chemicals — and, for some reason of human biology, a smoke goes well with a drink. Most bars and taverns allow both. Some restaurants do also; some have divided sections, and some forbid smoking entirely.

A free society, meaning one in which you and I are free to make our own reasonable decisions, calls for a certain tolerance. If 20 percent of the people smoke and 80 percent do not, there will be some places that allow smoking and some that don't.

The traditional American way to do it is through the principle of ownership. Let politicians set the rules for public places and private owners set the rules for private places. Each chooses for the space they control, and let each hear the complaints. As people's thinking changes, the rules for the spaces around them will change.

My neighborhood, which is so progressive that 2-ounce chocolate bars are organic and cost $2.79 each, has four restaurants within four blocks of my house. All ban smoking. There are two taverns. One allows smoking and the other bans it inside but has outdoor benches for the incorrigibles.

That suits my neighborhood. A different neighborhood will do it a different way.

A few weeks ago, I stopped in the old downtown of Centralia, a town whose tradition of tolerance, if you know labor history, is none too good. I ate at a diner that had been there for more than half a century. It is too small for a non-smoking section, and allows smokers everywhere. The owner told me half his patrons are tobacco users.

I-901 imposes the same intolerant, absolutist rule on Centralia as Seattle. It is the same rule for Wild Ginger and the Five Point Cafe. Diversity is extinguished, discretion erased, freedom gone — and not only inside all spaces where employees work, but 25 feet from every door, open window or air vent. The smokers who now cluster around doorways on blustery November days will be forced out into the rain or under a dripping tree.

I-901 says: If you want to smoke in a bar, tavern or restaurant, go to an Indian reservation. Only there will it be allowed. Thus the tribes are granted another commercial monopoly. Somehow, the argument about the public health does not apply to them.

It is a thin argument anyway. The plain fact is, if you don't want to be around cigarette smoke, it is easy to arrange your life so that you almost never smell it. A few jobs are offered that put one close to smokers, but not many, and no one is forced to take them or to keep them. Now and then in a restaurant you get a whiff of cigarette, but in my experience, not much and hardly ever.

I-901 is not about health really. It is about one group of people who want to set the rules for everyone else.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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