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.