An ordinance before the New Orleans City Council that would ban smoking in bars and open public spaces may follow the national trend, but that just shows that the nation ain’t what it used to be.

The American prejudice has traditionally run in favor of personal liberty and the free market, but the anti-tobacco hysteria continues to trample on both principles.

The plan is not only to make all bars smoke-free, but to hound any poor wretch lighting up in an open public space.

Smokers may be a despised minority — albeit a substantial one — but this is where despised minorities are supposed to have rights, too. A little mutual consideration is all that is required for a civilized co-existence.

Since that is happening already, the ordinance is quite unnecessary. No heavy hand is required to bring about smoke-free bars, because there is a strong public demand for them, and it is being widely met.

The establishment where yours truly may be seen taking refreshment cleared the air months ago, and has evidently prospered. Smokers have their options close by, so all tastes are catered for. Politicians have no cause to boss us about.

They proclaim a duty to protect the lungs of helpless citizens, but that has been largely accomplished already, with workplace or restaurant fug a distant memory. The anti-smoking forces assert we need to be controlled for our own good, but it is obvious that the public health is by no means their only concern.

They are the latest manifestation of the puritan impulse to punish the masses for their weaknesses. If secondhand smoke is the hazard it is alleged to be, it is still not going to harm, or even incommode, even the most dedicated health nut in the middle of City Park. By extending the ban on smoking to the open air, where it would in any case be impossible to enforce, the ordinance reveals its true, killjoy motivation.

That we have contrived a civilized accommodation rendering the ordinance superfluous is unwittingly confirmed by its sponsor. When Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell notes, “We’re seeing trends throughout the city that are driven by the bar owners themselves,” she regards that as her justification. In reality, it was one more reason to leave us the hell alone.

Not all authorities agree that secondhand smoke is quite as lethal as advertised. The Cato Institute, for example, suggests that “junk science” underpins many of the claims made by the anti-tobacco campaign, and it is not in the zealot’s nature to understate his case. We are constantly being told that thousands die from secondhand smoke every year, but not one of them has ever been named.

Still, the right not to breathe other people’s smoke is pretty well established these days. Dangerous or not, it can be pretty disgusting, and smokers have come to accept the role of pariah. But they are not much of a threat huddled the requisite number of feet outside the office or barroom door.

No doubt the public health would be improved if nobody smoked, which is presumably what the campaigners would regard as the ideal state of affairs. But if every activity with potentially fatal consequences were to be prohibited, we’d all die prematurely of boredom.

Since smokers are likelier than others to die prematurely anyway, they are clearly not the drain on the public purse that the courts have accepted as grounds for huge damages awards against tobacco companies. The costs of medical treatment for smokers may be considerable, but are clearly more than offset by the taxes they pay and their failure to survive long enough to contract other diseases while collecting retirement checks. The anti-smoking cause is so worthy, however, that intellectual honesty is not required.

So smokers have no defenders, and perhaps they don’t deserve any. But they have become so much less obtrusive that it may be time to live and let live.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@the advo cate.com.