We might as well go out now and change the city-limits signs: “Welcome to Charleston — unless you're a smoker.”

In the past few years, Charleston has banned smoking in restaurants, snuffed out cigarettes in bars and unceremoniously shut down the city's lone cigar bar.

And Tuesday night, City Council outlawed lighting up on public sidewalks, streets and inside parked cars in an entire section of downtown.

Mayor Joe Riley, who supported the move to ban smoking for several blocks around Roper Hospital and MUSC, said this was a unique move, not a sign of things to come.

But try to find a smoker who believes that.

What's going to happen when the next group of businesses whines that smoke from the sidewalk is offending their customers?

The city has set a precedent — a bad one — and it's going to be awful hard to just say no.

Butt out

Roper and MUSC asked for the smoke-free zone because employees and patients are subjected to a “wall of smoke” every time they try to go to the hospital.

Well, they created the problem when they banned smoking on their campuses and pushed smokers to the sidewalks.

Now, to be fair, smoking is unhealthy and you can hardly expect medical facilities to condone it. But let's be reasonable, like City Councilman Aubry Alexander.

Alexander proposed a no-smoking zone for 100 feet around any entrance to the hospitals. But common sense failed on a tie vote. Bad move.

As Mayor Pro Tem Dean Riegel says, council basically kicked the butt down the road. Now these folks are just going to stand on the sidewalks a block outside the no-smoking zone, which will prompt another group to ask that it be expanded.

Don't think so? Council members were expanding the hospital no-smoking zone south of Calhoun Street before they even passed it.

It's bad enough that the city has given authority to hospital security forces to write city tickets. But the bigger issue is this: When did the rights of one group start to outweigh another's?

“There are two rights at play — the right to smoke, that is, the right to be stupid, and the right to protect people's health,” Riegel says.

He's absolutely right.

Funny, this is working out exactly opposite of the assault-weapon debate, where your right not to get shot at the movie theater isn't as important as some other guy's right to own a machine gun.

Forget your rights

The city is on dangerous ground here.

Because the tea party and other anti-government groups didn't come out to protest, this no-smoking zone passed easily. So make no mistake, there will be other people asking for similar treatment. The forces of political correctness aren't going to stop with 10 square blocks.

Then what does council do? Well, it either is going to show itself to be hypocritical or get out its pitchforks again and run smokers even farther out of town.

“Smokers have no rights in this city,” Alexander says.

And that's just wrong.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.