Commentary

Puffing for Property Rights

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on June 13, 2004.
Last month D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary A. Gooden Terrell ruled that Initiative 66, which would ban smoking in all workplaces in Washington — including restaurants and bars — was “invalid” and “improper” [Metro, May 22]. She then ordered the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to disallow it from the November ballot. The judge’s decision was a devastating blow to efforts to ban public smoking in the District.

More than 70 major jurisdictions (and dozens of minor ones) across the country have gone smoke-free. New anti-smoking initiatives pop up in additional cities every day. Thus far Washington is the only major metropolitan area to turn back an effort by anti-tobacco activists to ban smoking citywide.

Oddly enough, this turn of events makes the nation’s capital a leader in property rights. On this issue at least, Washington has gone to bat for its business owners.

When the ban went before the D.C. Council, for example, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) argued against it, not because smokers have any “right” to annoy the rest of us with their habit but because the people who invest their money, time, sweat and toil to build a business in Washington should be able to run that business in the manner they see fit. Mayor Anthony A. Williams made the same case.

The Citizens for Smokefree Workplaces campaign was launched and funded with a $250,000 grant from the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has funded similar campaigns across the country. The ban was opposed by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (a consortium of business owners) and by Ban the Ban, a grass-roots group of young smokers and nonsmokers who wrote op-eds and letters to the editor and waged petition drives to keep the ban at bay.

That’s what’s at the heart of this issue: keeping things local. It is about letting D.C. bar and restaurant owners make their own decisions about their own businesses and not allowing out-of-state activists and nanny-statists to force D.C. bars and restaurants to serve D.C. residents on the activists’ terms.

If the people who pushed for the D.C. smoking ban believe in securing smoke-free options for Washington-area families, consumers and restaurant industry workers, they’ll give up their fight to force the city to knuckle under to how they think things ought to be. Instead, they will work to create a stronger market for themselves by patronizing the dozens of smoke-free options already doing business in the city. That should inspire new nonsmoking businesses to open, and it certainly would be a more positive approach to the issue than removing the smoking option from everyone by government fiat.

But that, of course, isn’t likely to happen. More likely, the Smokefree D.C. folks will appeal Terrell’s ruling. And if that doesn’t work, they will bide their time until the District has new political leaders more amenable to their dictates. Then, armed with a new grant, they will wage battle again.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.