Commentary

Too Much Fire About Smoking

This article appeared in the Washington Post on January 8, 2006.

With Prince George’s County’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in effect and the D.C. Council having voted 11 to 1 last week to enact a ban — an action that could be vetoed by the mayor [front page, Jan. 5] — supporters and opponents of smoking prohibitions are shifting their focus to new battlegrounds. Both sides also had been pressuring members of the Howard County Council, which just approved a smoking ban but is battling County Executive James N. Robey over a grandfather clause in the legislation. Now both sides are setting their sights on Annapolis, where a bill mandating a statewide ban is likely to be introduced this session.

Both sides in the battles over smoking bans come equipped with long lists of studies supposedly proving that secondhand smoke either is or isn’t a public health risk; that smoking prohibitions either are or aren’t economically harmful to the hospitality industry; and that bar patrons, employees and the general public either do or do not support bans. And both sides offer eloquent moral arguments for why their position protects individuals from being unfairly subjected to the will of others.

Elected leaders have reason to feel uneasy about wading through this stew of science, economics, philosophy and emotionalism, and they shouldn’t have to, because a better policy response is available.

One benefit of a free market is that it can cater to a variety of public desires — including the desire for smoking-allowed or smoke-free bars and restaurants. Government need only pass an ordinance requiring that all places of public accommodation establish either a no-smoking or smoking-allowed policy, that those businesses post the policy clearly at entrances, and that the government establish an enforcement mechanism to ensure that businesses comply with their espoused policies.

Such an ordinance would give smokers and nonsmokers the environments they want. If most consumers prefer a nonsmoking environment, bars and restaurants will follow the money and adopt a no-smoking policy. If a smoking ban hurts business, they will allow smoking. Some bars and restaurants likely will choose the no-smoking policy and others will choose the smoking-allowed policy, and smokers and nonsmokers alike will be accommodated. Alexandria, for example, doesn’t have a smoking ban, yet about 60 of its bars and restaurants have opted to go smoke-free.

This free-market policy would not just give people the environment they want, it could save lives. Ever since Montgomery County implemented its ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in the fall of 2003, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of cars with Maryland tags at some of my favorite Virginia watering holes. Perhaps the drivers are choosing to drink where smoking is allowed. Occasional exposure to secondhand smoke may or may not be a threat to the public health, but people drinking and then driving are unquestionably a threat.

A liberal society favors maximum liberty for its citizens, as long as that liberty doesn’t infringe on someone else’s rights. Neither a mandated smoking ban nor smokers lighting up wherever they want is consistent with the ideals of a liberal society. Elected officials should choose to support those ideals and give both smokers and nonsmokers the bars and restaurants that they want.

Thomas A. Firey is managing editor of the Cato Institute’s Regulation Magazine.