Commentary

Smoking Bans Continue an Assault on Freedom

I don’t smoke. I don’t like smoke. I sit in the non-smoking section of restaurants. In fact, I favor a smoking ban on publicly owned property in closely confined areas where non-smokers have no easy escape from tobacco fumes.

That said, most smoking bans are pernicious. They represent prying, busybody government at its worst - regulations without any respect for property rights, foisted on the public by anti-tobacco zealots armed with pseudo-science - about which more in a moment.

But first, let’s turn the clock back a few years.

Remember TIPS, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System? It was the brainchild of the Bush administration, designed to transform us into a nation of meddlers, each of us spying on the rest, then reporting to the feds if it looked as if terrorism was afoot.

Happily, Congress killed TIPS in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The justifiable concern was that overzealous, prejudiced or vindictive informants would somehow find a national security risk lurking behind ordinary, everyday conduct.

Unhappily, some Arizonans want to reincarnate TIPS. Indeed, the same acronym could apply, but with a slight change: Tobacco Information and Prevention System.

The new version of TIPS is part of the Smoke-Free Arizona initiative, which provides for oral or written anonymous reporting of such horrific acts as failure to remove all ashtrays or post no-smoking signs in shops and offices.

Reporting is easy: “Any member of the public may report a violation… . The department shall … establish an e-mail address and toll-free telephone number” for that purpose. So if there’s a storeowner you don’t like, or a competitor who needs to be taken down a peg, or a boss who didn’t give you the raise you deserved, just file an anonymous report and hope that some state official finds a violation, which could mean a fine of up to $500 per day.

Civilian armies that watch over their neighbors; a government mole in every restaurant, those tactics sunk the original TIPS.

But this time around, Arizonans have to cope with an enemy more dangerous than mere terrorists: secondhand smoke, in private businesses where people work (voluntarily) and shop (voluntarily).

After all, the Environmental Protection Agency, in its landmark 1993 study - cited prominently in the Smoke-Free Arizona initiative - warned that secondhand smoke is a carcinogen that annually causes thousands of deaths from lung cancer.

Hmm, maybe not.

Five years after the study was released, a federal judge lambasted the EPA for “cherry picking” the data, excluding studies that “demonstrated no association between ETS (environmental tobacco smoke) and cancer.”

And two years before that, the American Heart Association journal, Circulation, reported no increase in coronary heart disease associated with secondhand smoke “at work or in other settings.”

So what? Maybe secondhand smoke doesn’t kill people, but how about the harm to those with asthma, respiratory infections or eye allergies?

Well, listen to Jane Gravelle of the Congressional Research Service, testifying before Congress in 1994: “The statistical evidence does not appear to support a conclusion that there are substantial health effects from passive smoking.”

The war on tobacco started with a proven truth: primary smoke is a high-risk factor for lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema. But that fact has mushroomed into an assortment of untruths, eroding the credibility of government agencies and the rule of law.

Smoking bans are really about unrestrained government, an anti-tobacco crusade against thousands of private businesses and millions of smokers without grounding in fairness or common sense, and without an appreciation for the principles that nourish a free society.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute and author of the Goldwater Institute report “Arizona’s Anti-Tobacco Crusade.”