Smokers’ rights: the fight ‘to be left alone’

By Emma Deihle

Punitively high.

That’s how Audrey Silk, founder of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (NYC C.L.A.S.H.), regards the taxes her home state and New York City impose on a pack of cigarettes: $4.35 and $5.85, respectively.

Born in Brooklyn, Silk started NYC C.L.A.S.H. in 2000 to contest what she calls the anti-smoking crusade. Despite having the word “lobbying” in their title, Silk said the group cannot afford a lobbyist and receives funding only from citizens.

“It’s just regular people writing letters, making phone calls – the whole thing,” she said.

NYC C.L.A.S.H. went national in the mid 2000s and has become one of the nation’s leading smokers’ rights activist groups. One of her organization’s greatest concerns is the enacting of laws that change behavior, what she sees as an overreach of government.

NYC C.L.A.S.H.

Silk (right center) and NYC C.L.A.S.H. members orchestrated what Silk called an “act of defiance” on Coney Island Boardwalk after New York City’s ban on smoking at parks and beaches went into effect in May 2011.

Silk said she became a serious advocate for smokers’ rights in 2001, when then-Gov. George Pataki proposed raising New York’s cigarette tax from eight cents to $1.50 a pack. His goal, she said, was to help people quit smoking.

“Help?” Silk said. “That’s coercion, not help.”

New York has raised the rate four times since 2000.

Silk and C.L.A.S.H.’s biggest objection to smoke-free laws and other regulatory provisions is that smoking is still legal.

“I do not disagree that it comes with risk,” said Silk. “However, tobacco and the actual act of smoking continues to remain legal.”

While she acknowledges the health risks associated with primary smoking, Silk and C.L.A.S.H. members butt heads with researchers and lawmakers over the legitimacy of secondhand smoke concerns.

“The intent of smokers’ rights is to combat this so-called secondhand smoke, which is how they got bans imposed … when secondhand smoke, as far as we’re concerned, is a fraud.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came out with a report in 1992 that deemed secondhand smoke a known carcinogen and revealed that more than 3,000 nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke die from lung cancer each year.

Silk said because this report was an advisory paper, it never should have been used to set smoking policies. The science behind the report was “crap,” she maintains.

Yet it has been used to stigmatize smokers and to motivate tax hikes, Silk said.

Silk sees Virginia’s cigarette tax level as normal, not low, and supports the exemptions from smoke-free laws the state implemented in December 2009.

Virginia’s smoke-free law dictates that smoking is prohibited in restaurants and bars that are open to the public unless they have an outdoor portion without a roof covering or they have a designated smoking room that is vented properly and structurally separate from the non-smoking areas.

The Commonwealth Cigar Club in Roanoke is an example of a business exempt from the smoking ban. The private, members-only cigar club was the first of its kind in Virginia and is not subject to the no smoking provision. Members are allowed to bring their own alcohol and smoke in the space above Milan Tobacconists, Inc., the cigar and tobacco shop owned by David Meyer and his wife Renée.

Meyer recalled the long process of applying for an Alcoholic Beverage Control license but said the smoking exemption did not complicate matters. He said most of the restaurants in the state were smoke-free voluntarily before the regulation was enacted.

Meyer said they lost a few high-end restaurant accounts after the laws were introduced, but their business was not affected drastically. However, he thinks the decision to smoke or permit smoking should be left up to individuals.

“I always have believed that it should be up to the business owner as to whether or not they want to allow smoking.” Meyer said. “I didn’t believe, personally, that it needed to be legislated.”

Silk agrees and summarizes C.L.A.S.H.’s mission as the defense of one’s right to make his or her own personal lifestyle choices without external interference.

“That’s really what our fight’s about – the right to be left alone,” Silk said. “You told me not to do it … now leave me alone.”