Thursday, March 17, 2005

Big Brother is watching you ... light up

In the fictional world of George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four," Big Brother is everywhere, controlling all aspects of a person’s life. Around every corner in the totalitarian state of Orwell’s Oceania, giant posters stare back at you with the ominous warning, "Big Brother is watching you."

If Jim Matthews gets his way, the nightmarish world of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" may soon become a reality in Montgomery County. Jim Matthews is the big brother of maniacal talk-show host Chris Matthews of MSNBC fame. Jim Matthews is also the chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Montgomery County, just outside Philadelphia.

In a move believed to be the first of its kind in the country, Big Brother Matthews floated the idea of adopting a policy that would ban the hiring of smokers for county jobs.

We're not talking about people who smoke during work hours or sneak a cigarette during their lunch break. If you smoke any time, any place — whether it’s in the privacy of your home or at your favorite tavern or in your car — don’t bother applying for any of the 3,200 full-time jobs that Montgomery County has to offer.

Big Brother Matthews, a Republican, says he’s trying to save taxpayers some money by reducing the number of smokers employed by the county. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with banning smokers because their habit is bad for their health and leads to higher premiums paid by the county.

I’m not a smoker. Never have smoked and have no desire to start. And I don’t enjoy breathing in second-hand smoke. But there’s something inherently wrong about government telling people how to live their lives on their own time.

Is there any more punishment we can inflict on the estimated 47 million Americans who smoke? The government already taxes cigarettes to the point where a pack of smokes costs $7.50 in New York City. Let’s be up front about those taxes. The government will tell you it’s trying to discourage smoking by placing such burdensome taxes on tobacco, but it’s just an easy way to tax a group that isn’t organized enough to fight back.

Smokers have suffered much humiliation at the hands of government in recent years. They’ve been chased from restaurants, bars and all manner of public buildings. They can’t smoke in airplanes or taxis or buses. Private employers have followed suit, forcing smokers into back alleys or ledges for a quick drag. You almost feel sorry for smokers.

If you carry Big Brother Matthews reasoning to its logical conclusion, people won’t be able to smoke in the privacy of their own homes. I can’t wait until this case gets to the Supreme Court, which previously plucked the "right to privacy" from the Constitution even though those words don’t appear anywhere in the document. Where is a person’s right to privacy if your boss can fire you for a lifestyle choice not connected to your job performance?

Big Brother Matthews is riding a slippery slope. If smokers are banned from the workplace, who would be next? What about fat people? Obesity is a public health crisis in the United States. Are we nearing the day when workers will have to get on a scale every morning before they start work?

What other undesirables are lurking in the cubicles of offices or assembly lines? If a guy goes home after a hard day at the office and has a few beers, shouldn't his boss know about that? What about a person with tattoos? Shouldn’t Big Brother Matthews be worried about hiring these kind of people? And will the policy cover "elected" county employees, such as Big Brother Matthews, who quit smoking two years ago, but chews nicotine gum to curb his cravings?

There are other "vices" besides smoking. How can you single out one? What about people who buy lottery tickets? That’s gambling, isn’t it? Aren’t gamblers prone to stealing from their employer to feed their habits? Oh, wait. The lottery is government-sponsored gambling. Never mind. It's OK to gamble as long as the government gets the money.

What if someone starts smoking after they’re hired? Will Big Brother Matthews order county detectives to follow suspected smokers after they leave work? Will he set up surveillance of workers on weekends and holidays? Will he round up employees who try to wolf down a Big Mac or a Whopper? Maybe the county should hire only vegetarians.

What if a top county administrator is having an extra-marital affair and Big Brother Matthews' secret police get pictures of the indiscretion? Is the tryst OK as long as the philanderer doesn't light up a cigarette after leaving a motel room? Is there anything wrong with frequenting a strip club as long as you don't smoke?

How far is Big Brother Matthews willing to go to invade the privacy of a worker? And why stop at vices? Shouldn’t Montgomery County impose limits on how many children workers can have? After all, those dependents cost the county money when they're added to the health plan.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

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