From the bonfire of their vanities, our liberties continue to go up in smoke

Tobacco’s damaging impact on smokers’ lungs and hearts is well established, but ongoing research into its impact on the brain is yielding startling results. New evidence comes from New York City, where the City Council just voted to outlaw smoking in public parks and beaches.

The idea first had to overcome an unusually skeptical political class. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, normally a stalwart on all matters health, worried the city just didn’t have enough cops to enforce it. Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-Queens) invoked Kristallnacht and warned that if “we start going after individual personal liberties,” we’ll wind up with something akin to Nazism.

But then Bloomberg experienced a kind of breakthrough. (He did not, alas, discover a hitherto undeployed NYPD squad secretly training to serve as Gotham’s first armed beach patrol.) After the Daily News ran a photo of littered cigarette butts, the mayor abandoned his momentary experimentation with rationality and backed the proposal. In lieu of hiring more cops, the law will be “self-policed.” Comrie, for his part, ultimately voted for the ban he earlier equated with the harbinger of the Holocaust, explaining that his teenage kids told him to.

Smoking kills, to be sure. But if New Yorkers are to worry themselves with the passive impacts of a particular behavior, they might consider concentrating on politicians addled by publicity-generating policy stunts. Indeed, the only health Bloomberg can plausibly claim to be advancing is that of his own ego.

The mayor, a former smoker, shows all too well that unrestrained vanity, like smoking, has addictive qualities. Bloomberg clearly relishes his reputation as America’s intrepid health warrior. At a 2007 Memorial Day event honoring America’s fighting men and women, he seized the opportunity to hype his own fighting … to improve public health: “Our soldiers are fighting so that we have our freedoms. Unless you have good health, you’re not going to be around to enjoy them.”

Bloomberg may as well have also advised us to enjoy these freedoms while we can, because the rapidity with which his ego needs its next fix is quickening. Historically, once the mayor seizes upon some new idea to save New Yorkers from themselves, he’s enraptured. That is, until the law passes and he gets bored. Then it’s just a matter of time before discovering the next way he can embark upon an unsolicited foray into social engineering.

As these policies take shape, the rest of America gets to grapple with the fallout. From Bloomberg’s first adventure in babysitting through all the sequels — bans on smoking, bans on trans fats, bans on salt, calorie counts, etc. — people thought, “Surely no; surely this step is one too far.” Yet once he succeeds at pushing through whatever form of high-minded coercion he’s currently hawking, thousands of like-minded, ego-fueled pols nationwide inevitably follow suit. Give it two years; smoking will soon be banned in public parks nationwide.

Never having actually saved a life like the soldiers Bloomberg exploits, these pols invariably claim to be doing just that. Announcing the latest ban, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn claimed, “This bill will save lives.” With such easy glory up for grabs, it’s no wonder smoking’s now banned practically everywhere in America and the feds are working to nationalize Bloomberg’s bans on trans fats and “excessive” salt.

Science, at this point, is no longer a part of the conversation, and common sense may as well be listed atop the endangered species list. Not even Bloomberg would pretend that some hapless pedestrian could catch a case of early death after finding himself downwind from a few bikini-clad babes puffing Marlboro Lights on Coney Island.