Commentary

Healthy Living Through Coercion

This article was published in The Washington Times, December 11, 2003.

On Dec. 3, in a contentious public hearing, the D.C. City Council heard testimony for and against the Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2003, a bill that would ban smoking in all District bars and restaurants. With the District reclaiming its title as murder capital of the United States, one might think the city council would have more pressing issues to deal with, such as secondhand lead poisoning in the form of stray bullets.

But supporters of the ban argue secondhand smoke is a life or death public health issue. In fact, Smokefree D.C., the activist group backing the ban, claims environmental tobacco smoke kills up to 65,000 Americans a year — more than 3 times the national murder rate. But they’re fudging the facts. Their real goal is to socially engineer smoking out of existence.

The epidemiological evidence doesn’t come close to justifying the outlandish claim secondhand smoke kills more people than handguns. Since “the dose makes the poison,” it’s far from clear that passive inhalation of secondhand smoke poses any significantly increased health risk at all. The Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to show it does was thrown out of court as junk science by a federal district court judge in 1998. A study released last May in the British Medical Journal used American Cancer Society data tracking 35,561 Californians over 39 years, and concluded, “The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco-related mortality.”

Secondhand smoke is, at worst, a minuscule health risk that is easily avoided. There are plenty of employment opportunities for service industry workers who prefer not to be exposed to ETS. Smokefree DC’s Web page features a list of 261 restaurants, bars and coffee shops in the D.C. area that have voluntarily decided to go smoke-free. If exposure to secondhand smoke is an intolerable health risk that workers cannot be allowed to assume, then why in the world do we allow people to take jobs delivering pizzas or working as bike messengers, where they might be killed on any given day?

The push for a D.C. smoking ban isn’t really about protecting workers. Antismoking activists make unsupportable claims about the health risks of ETS to advance their real goal: reducing the number of cigarette smokers by reducing the number of places in which one can legally smoke.

At one time, this was a private strategy of the antismoking movement. At a 1986 antismoking conference, Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, explained: “Although the nonsmokers’ rights movement concentrates on protecting the nonsmoker rather than on urging the smoker to quit for his or her own benefit, clean indoor air legislation reduces smoking because it undercuts the social support network for smoking by implicitly defining smoking as an antisocial act.”

But antismoking activists are becoming increasingly brazen about their desire to coerce smokers into quitting. On Nov. 18, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the New Jersey-based public health group that has donated a quarter-million dollars to the drive for a D.C. smoking ban, ran an eight-page advertising supplement in the New York Times. The cover features a scene from the inside of a smoke-free bar, with glamorous twentysomethings chatting and drinking martinis. Through the bar’s window, you can see a forlorn group of smokers huddled in the rain and shivering. The caption reads: “No longer cool, smokers find themselves out in the cold.”

David Satcher, the former surgeon general, echoed this theme in his testimony before the D.C. City Council. He argued the smoking ban would “be effective in creating a new social norm that discourages people from smoking.”

However desirable that social norm might be, Dr. Satcher and Smokefree D.C. have no right to promote it by restricting the freedom of business owners to set the rules for the premises they own. And they have no right to push adults out into the cold for the sin of indulging in a perfectly legal product.

You may think smoking is a nasty habit and secondhand smoke is unpleasant. But what’s truly obnoxious is the drive to make us all healthier people through the coercive arm of the law. That’s the impulse behind the D.C. smoking ban, and it has no place in a free, tolerant and diverse city.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.