Public Smoking Bans

This is a major point of contention between me and the missus. I encourage everyone to weigh in their own perspectives, in the comments section.

Here’s the thing. I’m not disputing that smoking is a harmful and stupid habit. It clearly is. Smoking has, in countless scientific tests, been shown to increase one’s risk of lung cancer and heart disease drastically. Smokers can expect to live 14 years less on average than their non-smoking peers.  And on top of that, it makes your breath smell like you licked the underside of a truck stop bar.

These facts, among others, were scary enough to convince me to put an end to my brief smoking stint during my sophomore year of college.

I’m also not disputing the potential harm of secondhand smoke. Even though a relatively “safe” level of environmental smoke has not been properly defined or measured, the evidence clearly shows that exposure to a significant amount of secondhand smoke carries many of the same health risks as smoking.

The point of contention, though, lies with the political efficacy of public smoking bans, which prohibit indoor smoking in places open to the public, or merely in places that serve food.

Those who approve of public smoking bans claim that secondhand smoke is a matter of public health, and therefore policy measures are necessary to prevent non-smokers from being harmed by cigarette smoke against their will.

However, even if public smoking is a matter of public health, it doesn’t follow that a public smoking ban is a good idea.

For instance, a person infected with HIV poses a significant health risk on anyone he might have sexual contact with. So would it be a good idea to ban persons with HIV from having sex? It’s entirely possible that a person may be infected with HIV while sexually active and not even know it, so is it reasonable for the law to require two consenting adults to undergo an HIV test before they can be allowed to have sex?

Perhaps this example is a strawman, but the concept is still valid. Public health issues do not necessarily warrant government intervention.

The fact is, just as a man with HIV is still a human being perfectly within his rights to pursue happiness, a smoker is a human being also. Smoking is a personal choice, and smokers should not be treated as second-class citizens just because of their penchant for an occasional smoke.

Given this, (and putting my feelings about property rights aside) what about the concern that those who smoke in public are “endangering” those who don’t smoke, against their will?

Even if this is true, private mechanisms are more than able to address this problem.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that public smoking bans in restaurants were lifted, and restaurants and bars were allowed to decide its own smoking policy.

Only about 20% of Americans smoke, so it stands to reason that most restaurants would try to cater to the non-smokers by prohibiting indoor smoking in their facilities.

However, that 20% is still a good portion of the population, so some of these restaurants might also provide an option for smokers: maybe a closed-off smoking section or outdoor tables, for example.

Other places may be of the type that are frequented by smokers. Like bars or nightclubs. So it’s reasonable to assume that a significant portion of bars and nightclubs would allow smoking, while others would try to cater to non-smokers by prohibiting it.

If you don’t smoke and don’t want to eat in a smoky environment, you’ll have many options. If you don’t smoke, but you don’t mind eating in a slightly smoky environment, you have even more options. And if you do smoke, you don’t have that many options, but at least you have options. And the lack of options might also act as incentive for people to give up the harmful habit.

If you’ve been to a bar or a club lately, you’ve experienced another problem with public smoking bans: they’re frequently disobeyed or disregarded. Smoking bans, therefore, breed disrespect for the law.

And I know I said I’d disregard my feelings on property rights, but fuck it. It’s a property rights issue as well.

If I own a restaurant, it’s not a public facility. It’s a private one. And if I feel that allowing indoor smoking on my property would expand my clientèle, I should be able to do that. Conversely, if I think my customers would prefer a smoke-free environment, I should have the freedom to prohibit smoking. Either way should be my decision as the owner.

I see no good justification, therefore, for state-enforced public smoking bans.

8 thoughts on “Public Smoking Bans

  1. I’m not sure if you’ve read the legislation on smoking bans or not, but I find them pretty rational, and actually required, at least in Florida, as a means to implementing a state constitutional amendment. The primary purpose of the ban is not just for “public health,” but for other more specific purposes like, for example, the health of employees. In many respects it goes beyond just protecting people against the risk of second hand smoke; it is an effort to ensure there are sufficient places of employment for non-smokers to work without the undue burden of fearing for their lives. The statute also carves out areas of the law where smoking has established itself as habitual and where people are more likely to assume the risk of working in those establishments, such as stand-alone bars, where they don’t sell much food and where there aren’t many employees necessary to effectively run a business.

    It also generally establishes a new default against smoking. Personally, I don’t think the default in the “free market” would be to establish non-smoking establishments. The free market didn’t stop the practice even after many years in which we were well aware of the harms of smoking. People eating out mostly accepted smoking in public places, or at least in certain sections, as common and therefore indisputable. People don’t always act rationally or make decisions according to what they believe is the ideal situation, or even upon their own volition. I find that the government action here, though it may impede on what some people consider their rights, is necessary to speed up the process for something in which we know is bad.

    Though I really don’t disagree with many of your points, perhaps just because I’m liberal when it comes to what people decide to do with their own bodies, I do think the notion of smoking bans were more thought out than you make them seem, and targeted for more specific reasons than just to “protect the public health”. In many respects your post is a bit too much of a strawman argument.

    Just some quick thoughts…

    • Initiating public smoking bans for the health of employees carries the same logical pitfalls as for the general public. It would be a legitimate concern if we were assigned jobs and forced to do them. But that isn’t the case. When I apply for a job, I know ahead of time what kind of environment I’ll be working in and that should be one of the factors I consider in determining whether to take the job or not. Florida law allows bars to decide whether or not to allow smoking. Why doesn’t the state seem to be pushing for bartenders’ health?

      Also, the idea that a behavior is harmful doesn’t mean that the government needs to legislate it. This mentality is entirely to blame for public smoking bans AND laws requiring a smoking section.

      Most restaurants WERE moving in the direction of prohibiting smoking in the mid-20th century, after news of its harmful effects became public. But tobacco companies, fearing a drop in sales, launched “courtesy awareness” campaigns that encouraged tolerance and accommodation. They pushed for the government to pass legislation requiring restaurants to have smoking and non-smoking sections, and won. Now, decades later, people think the problem of forcing a business to run itself a certain way can be solved by forcing it to run itself a different way. This is completely unnecessary, especially now that the harms and dangers of secondhand smoke are more substantiated and scientifically-sound than ever.

      And this is absolutely not a strawman argument. Nearly every defense for public smoking bans that I’ve read cites “public health” as a good reason for legislative bans. Here’s one. And another. And another (that one actually cites “annoyance” as a reason to ban something… which is enough to make me want to smack the author).

      • I love how you think that everyone has freewill. That is simply not the case. There aren’t an infinite number of jobs people can choose from, or even jobs people are qualified for. Because of these limitations, people who do not wish to assume the risk of working where smoking isn’t prohibited are still essentially forced to do so. As I said before, the exceptions in the law are provided because it’s understood that in certain places, such as tobacco stores, stand-alone bars, and places which are specially designated for smoking, people will assume the risk of second or even first hand smoking. And because these jobs don’t make up the bulk of our State’s “work place,” they are excepted from the smoking ban. It’s called a compromise.

        And, yes, your argument is a strawman. Your argument stems from an Idea that all legislation for the public health is wrong. This legislation is not just for the public health, which has many pitfalls as you’ve described, and therefore you set the argument up to lose. It’s a strawman argument. Public health might be one concern, but it’s not the only concern. You aren’t faithful to the reason behind the legislation (or at least Florida’s legislation, which I used for an example) nor does it appear that you’ve given it any concern in your analysis. However, just looking at the links you provided, I can tell that the UK also contemplated a healthy “workforce” and other reasons for the ban. The remainder of the articles have no connection to any legislation whatsoever, so I don’t see the purpose in using them for the sake of argument.

      • First of all, I’m aware that Florida’s smoking ban carries an exception for bars and nightclubs. This is not the case for all smoking bans (e.g. the NYC public smoking bans), but these exemptions still don’t address the issue that if I want to build a diner, I can’t allow smoking unless I call it a bar or apply for an exemption. Red tape. Waiting periods. Bureaucracy. All paid for by our tax dollars. And for what purpose?

        Second, yes EVERYONE has free will. We’re not talking about the underprivileged poor with few options here. Last I checked, there isn’t a shortage of restaurants. If someone owns a restaurant and wants to allow smoking, if Waiter X is not willing to work in a smoky environment, perhaps Waiter Y will (probably for more money). And if no one is willing to do it, then the owner has to either re-evaluate his policy or shut down his business. This is basic economics here. I doubt many people take the time and invest energy to learn a trade without thinking about the working conditions they’re likely to face.

        The primary purpose of the ban is not just for “public health,” but for other more specific purposes like, for example, the health of employees. In many respects it goes beyond just protecting people against the risk of second hand smoke; it is an effort to ensure there are sufficient places of employment for non-smokers to work without the undue burden of fearing for their lives.

        Attempting to create smoke-free workplaces so that workers don’t have to fear for their health IS a public health issue. You keep saying public health is not the primary reason for a public smoking ban, and yet you don’t seem to be revealing any of the laws aims that aren’t related to the public health of either patrons or employees. And you certainly haven’t offered any reason why this approach is better at achieving this end than a free market model.

        My contention was not at all that all legislation for the public health is wrong. Read what I wrote. I merely said that just because something is a public health concern does not mean that the government should intervene to regulate or ban it. There are many laws concerning public health that I would agree with: vaccines, reasonable FDA regulations, health inspections, etc. Smoking bans, however, are one particular law intended to address a public health concern that I think would be better addressed by private markets and free-market competition.

        Like I said, if you claim that I’m not being faithful to the true intentions of these laws, then what is the real reason for public smoking bans, if not for public health?

  2. Personally, I think it’s up to the owner of the establishment to make the decision whether or not smoking should be allowed in their place of business. I lived in NY when the smoking ban was put in place and standing outside of a bar in the snow to enjoy a cigarette sucks. A good majority of the city hated the ban. Most said fuck the ban and smoked inside during the winter anyway. Sure, cigarettes are harmful to your health. You know what else is harmful to your health? Most of the processed foods in this country. I don’t see the government running to place a ban or create any stricter food regulations.

    If I understand correct, the point of this post is against the government sticking their dick into places it doesn’t belong and trying to regulate every little thing they can to make it look like they give a shit about you and me. My stance on the whole thing is simply this, if I own a bar, I’m going to let you smoke at the bar. If you’re a non-smoker and don’t want to have a drink at my bar then go to Chili’s for 2 for 1 drinks and enjoy the smoke free environment.

  3. Black Jeezus, I am afraid you have been bought and sold by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation aka Johnson and Johnson, makers of nicotine cessation products. They have their fingers in everything and are willing to control every aspect of our lives. Please delve into this further.

    In 1998 the World Health Organization completed one of the largest international case-control studies of secondary smoke and lung cancer ever undertaken. When the report was finished however it didn’t get the usual big flashy press release and news conference most of these reports do. Instead it was up to a UK Telegraph reporter, Victoria MacDonald, to uncover what it had found and publicize it.

    This huge study, the one that had been counted on to deliver a final condemnation of secondary smoke’s connection to lung cancer instead found NO significant connection for adults. And when it looked at children the news for Antismokers was even worse: the one, single, significant result of the entire study was that children of smokers eventually got 22% *LESS* lung cancer than children of nonsmokers!

    The WHO was not happy with the results of its study being released in that way so they immediately turned around and issued a big bold headlined press release declaring ‘PASSIVE SMOKING DOES CAUSE LUNG CANCER, DO NOT LET THEM FOOL YOU’, ” despite the fact that their own study was not even able to find minimally significant support for such a claim.

    The abstract, some analysis, and the link to the full study for your own examination can be found through the courtesies of Michael McFadden and Audrey Silk at the NY Clash site at the bottom of:

    So take one thing from the WHO’s antismoking press release as fact: “DO NOT LET THEM FOOL YOU!” Their actual study did NOT support smoking bans!

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