Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Smoking Ban and Opinion and Politics and Public Safety and Notions

HETRICK: Does your private club need a license to kill?

November 7, 2009

Some of the loudest complaints about smoke-free-workplace laws involve private clubs, especially those affiliated with military veterans.

“We went to war and fought for our freedom,” the argument goes, “so government shouldn’t take away that freedom by telling us we can’t smoke.”

This manifested itself last week when Marine Corps veteran and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard told WRTV-Channel 6 News, “I’m never going to tell an Iwo Jima vet that he can’t smoke in the VFW. You can take that for what it’s worth.”

If news accounts are correct, it apparently was worth a threatened veto of a comprehensive smoke-free-workplace ordinance for our city. Subsequently, the City-County Council tabled the proposal.

But is it freedom-enhancing to defend a veteran’s “right” to commit slow-motion suicide and homicide?

In his 2006 acceptance speech, then-Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander-in-Chief Gary Kurpius argued that VFW posts need to make significant changes—including going smoke-free—to remain relevant to current and future generations of veterans.

“Membership drives everything we do, but we won’t get a new generation—or even the older generation—to join us if we don’t recognize and adapt to the changing world,” Kurpius said. “There has to be something more attractive about the VFW than just the bar.”

He called on member posts to create family-friendly services, such as child-care facilities and health clubs.

“But I guarantee you,” Kurpius said, “that no one will want to join a VFW health club, or bring their children to a VFW day-care center … as long as smoking is still permitted indoors.

“We are a democratic organization that is letting 20 percent of the population tell us that the post will fail if people can’t smoke inside. That’s bunk.

“I know many VFW members and spouses who will not attend post meetings or events because of the smoke. I have read many articles about the VFW being the last building in town where indoor smoking is still permitted—and some members quoted in the newspaper are celebrating as if they just won a great battle against government and social interference.

“Comrades, that is not a victory; it is a sad commentary that unfortunately paints all of us with the same brush.”

I’m not a military man (they didn’t want me), but I’m the son of one and the brother of two others.

So I know the VFW’s mission is to “honor the dead by helping the living.” Well, you don’t honor anyone by helping veterans kill themselves and everyone around them with tobacco smoke.

I also know the Marine Corps motto is semper fidelis, or “always faithful”—to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to the country, no matter what. The Marine Corps Web site also says “Respect for others is essential” and “Marines are expected to act responsibly in a manner befitting the title they’ve earned.”

Even if you’re faithful to your fellow Marine’s nicotine addiction, what’s respectful or responsible about poisoning the air at the VFW post, American Legion hall (or local tavern) for the bartenders, servers, janitors, caterers, delivery people, sales reps and others who work there—or the guests who visit? Is that really something the few and the proud would do?

If that weren’t cause enough, perhaps our veterans should set a healthy example for today’s troops.

A report released in June by the Institute of Medicine—an independent, not-for-profit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision-makers and the public—concluded that the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Congress “should take stronger steps toward eliminating tobacco use.”

“Because tobacco use impairs military readiness, harms the health of soldiers and veterans, and imposes a substantial financial burden on the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, these agencies should implement a comprehensive strategy to achieve the Defense Department’s stated goal of a tobacco-free military,” the report said.

Toward the same tobacco-free end, the military last month announced that it would ban smoking from Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital at the Marine Corps Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California—and at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., and at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Calif.

Martha Hunt, Bush Naval Hospital’s health promotions and awareness coordinator, said, “Tobacco use is the leading cause of death and disability in the United States … It is also one of the leading detractors from combat readiness, impacting the healing of injuries, heat stroke, night blindness, [post-traumatic stress disorder], and others.”

All of which begs a question for our elected officials contemplating smoke-free-workplace laws: Did our troops really fight and die for our country so our veterans could sicken and kill themselves and innocent bystanders here at home?

If so, it’s a sad new definition of “friendly fire.”•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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