Commentary

Don’t Ban Smoking - Does Virginia Really Want To Be more Restrictive than Washington?

This article originally appeared in the DC Examiner on February 16, 2005.

It’s hard to believe that a ban on smoking in public businesses wafted through the Virginia legislature and actually was considered at all. The Old Dominion is a state rich in history not only of the cultivation of tobacco, but in producing such intemperate champions of liberty and property rights as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The antismoking activists have been broadcasting detrimental health effects associated with secondhand smoke. Those Centers For Disease Control and Prevention statistics largely pertain to the children of smokers, not to people exposed to smoke in pubs.

But even if those numbers were accurate, they shouldn’t matter. Bans on public smoking aren’t an infringement only on the rights of smokers, they’re an infringement on the rights of property owners.

If I invest my own money or risk my own financial security by taking out a loan to start up a pub or restaurant, I ought to be able to serve my customers on my own terms. And my customers and employees ought to be free to make their own decisions about the risks they’re willing to undertake in exchange for service or employment.

Smokefree D.C.’s J.P. Szymokowicz says that wait staff and bartenders at establishments that allow smoking. They work there because job they’ve chosen “pays well” or because “you can’t get another job.” But that’s true of almost any job. You accept the conditions of a given employer when you choose to work for him. And you accept the general parameters of a line of work when you choose to enter that field.

At any rate, Szymokowicz’s own organization lists more than 190 smoke-free restaurants in the District of Columbia alone, which gives patrons, cooks and servers the genuine choice of whether they want to work and eat around cigarette smoke.

Szymokowicz’s argument that he wants to impose his preferences on the state of Virginia for the sake of bar and restaurant employees also fails the smell test. Smoking bans tend to have a minimal effect on large and chain restaurants. But when it comes to smaller, more independent businesses — pubs, diners, bowling alleys and the like — bans can be devastating.

Smoking bans mean fewer tips, lower wages and fewer jobs for workers. Given the choice between enduring secondhand smoke on the job and having no job at all, many cooks, bartenders and waitresses would prefer the former.

Antismoking activists usually point to a few studies showing some economic gain in New York City in the first years after its smoking ban went into place. But there is a basic problem with those numbers. New York’s ban went into effect shortly after Sept. 11, just as the hospitality industry was taking its biggest hit in decades. Much of the rise in sales can be attributed to the return of normal customer flow, not to customer eagerness to spend money now that bars are smoke-free.

The District of Columbia became the first major city in the country to turn back a smoking ban, thanks mostly to City Council members’ respect for the property rights of local businesses. There is no doubt this idea will come up again next year in Virginia.

Does Virginia really want to be more restrictive than Washington when it comes to lawmakers imposing their own vision of healthy living on the states’ restaurateurs, bar owners and entrepreneurs?

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.