Please Do Smoke, If You Like

January 20, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Washington Post on January 20, 2008.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine recently announced that he’ll renew his fight to ban smoking in all Virginia bars and restaurants. He defended this push by citing the dangers of secondhand smoke, saying, “The scientific evidence about the health risks associated with exposure to secondhand smoke is clear and convincing. Recognizing the negative health effects and high public costs of secondhand smoke, Virginia must act to protect the workers and consumers in its restaurants.”

We’re pleased the governor has such command of the epidemiologic literature. Usually, when politicians make such statements, they have little if any familiarity with the scientific research. Kaine should cite the empirical studies showing the health effects of bar and restaurant patrons’ occasional exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. We’re not aware of any such studies; even the much‐​cited recent surgeon general’s report on secondhand smoke offered no statistical evidence of diminished health from occasional exposure. The findings on health effects that we’ve seen involve people who are chronically exposed to secondhand smoke — people such as the spouses and children of smokers who’ve had decades of regular, concentrated exposure.

The governor further claims that he has “clear and convincing” scientific evidence that a ban would decrease health risks and reduce “high” public costs. Can he tell us what those costs were and how they were calculated? How much will Virginia’s current trends in mortality and morbidity change as a result of his prohibition? Will he and state legislators promise to repeal the law if no such change materializes?

Of course, people have a right to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, no matter what studies show. But they don’t have the right to force everyone else to live according to their preference. Fortunately, the world can accommodate their desires along with those of people who don’t mind tobacco smoke, just as it can accommodate people who like Chinese food and people who prefer hamburgers. Restaurant and bar owners want to make money, and they do so by catering to different market niches. In Northern Virginia, many restaurants and bars advertise that they are smoke‐​free, while others cater to a smoking crowd. This offering of many different choices is a virtue of open markets. So why would Kaine override the smoking choices of different people and instead impose his preference on all Virginians?

The governor noted his concern for the health of hospitality workers, who may have more exposure to secondhand smoke. But when bar and restaurant owners set their smoking policies, they must consider the preferences of their staff or else they’ll find themselves facing rapid turnover and paying higher wages. Why should all Virginia bar and restaurant workers be forced to work in a nonsmoking environment that only some of them demand?

Liberal societies allow people to make decisions that others don’t like. If some Virginians want to eat and drink in an establishment that allows smoking, and some workers want to work there, and some entrepreneur wants to finance that business, why does the governor think he should overrule them?

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