Alternate headline: “We’re all New Yorkers now.”
I’m duty-bound as a blogger to pretend that I’ve followed this issue closely over the years and can therefore explain that mysterious rise in public opinion from mid-2007 on, but … really, I can’t. We’ve known for decades about the cancer link, and if there’s a discrete event that might have caused a 50-percent increase in support for banning smoking in public places, it’s been lost to my memory. So let me give you two theories. One, the half-assed theory: Maybe this issue got dragged along when America lurched left before the 2008 election. Hopenchange fee-vah was pandemic and big government was once again in bloom. If we were going to force people to buy health insurance, then darn it, why not force them to put out their smokes in public too? It’s for their own good! The gaping hole in that theory, of course, is that America’s been lurching right ever since Inauguration Day and yet, even now, 59 percent support a ban.
On to theory two, then: If you peruse this list of smoking bans in American states and cities, you’ll find that the vast, vast majority didn’t start to move on this issue until 2003 at the earliest and that most of those who took action did so — ta da — circa 2006-2008. Which, probably not coincidentally, was around the time the anti-tobacco lobby was pushing it as a threat to children’s health. So what may have happened here is that, rather than public opinion driving legislative priorities, the reverse occurred. The lobbyists convinced state and local bodies to take this matter up; after a few did, other legislatures took notice and followed suit; and as the public got used to the new laws, their resistance waned and their approval grew accordingly. The Overton window was moved, not from the bottom up but from the top down, and voters adjusted. (Democrats are hoping for the same outcome eventually for ObamaCare, needless to say.) You’re seeing the same phenomenon right now, I think, with gay-marriage polls, which is why gay-rights activists are so keen about a snowball effect for legislative victories like the one in New York.
Or maybe I’m completely wrong. Any other theories? Do note that 19 percent of respondents here support a total prohibition on smoking nationwide, which is far-fetched right now — but then, so was legalized gay marriage not long ago. Big change happens in baby steps. Slowly, yet steadily.