Smoking Bans

Sunday, 2009-11-08; 03:43:03

Recently, there was a minor kerfluffle between some Twitter-folk that I follow, regarding smoking bans.

It started when Fred Priese tweeted about a St. Louis County public smoking ban that passed. Geoff Pado, who I follow, expressed his dissatisfaction in response.

Since Twitter is terrible for these discussions, Pado wisely moved this to a weblog post once he got some pushback on his disapproval of the smoking ban.

I’d like to pick apart Pado’s argument.

Pado writes:

I don’t disagree that smoking is harmful to your health. I don’t disagree that secondhand smoke is harmful to the health of those who are around smokers. This is proven fact. But for the most part (I’ll talk about the exceptions later), exposing yourself to these are a personal choice. In effect, I disagree with smoking bans for the same reason I disagree with forcing McDonald’s to put “WARNING! HOT!” stickers on its coffee. If you’re dumb enough to constantly expose yourself to a smoking environment, that’s your fault. You should know better.

I’m glad that Pado recognizes the risk that secondhand smoke poses to other people.

But, seriously, he’s making the argument that exposing oneself to secondhand smoke is a personal choice? Did he really just say that? That’s like saying that it’s your fault when you get hit by a drunk driver, because you should totally know the dangers of being around drunk drivers.

It’s a completely ludicrous statement to make.

Disagreeing with smoking bans is completely different from disagreeing with “warning hot coffee” stickers. Completely different. When you smoke, you affect others. When you drink hot coffee, the only person that you can harm is yourself.

Pado continues:

However, the amount of people that smoke is large, which means that businesses have a financial incentive to support people who smoke. Many people who smoke enjoy the company of other smokers, leading them to places where they can smoke together. Bowling alleys, bars, and restaurants are just a handful of places where smokers are allowed to assemble and smoke together. Why should they not be allowed that right?

Because when a person smokes, it amounts to a de facto ban on non-smokers who don’t want to damage their health. I want to be able to enjoy going to a restaurant, too! Why should I not be allowed the right to go to a restaurant and eat some delicious food without having to worry about harming my health due to smoke?

The point is, your smoking habit affects others. It affects others in an adverse way. Your rights stop when you start harming other people.

But let’s get to a more pernicious myth. Pado says, “businesses have a financial incentive to support people who smoke”. Actually, smoke free ordinances have no effect on restaurant or bar revenues. The Centers for Disease Control did a study on smoking bans in restaurants and bars in El Paso, Texas, in 2002. The conclusion? “No decline in total restaurant or bar revenues occurred in El Paso, Texas, after the city’s smoking ban was implemented on January 2, 2002.” Read it for yourself. The WHO reached a similar conclusion in a study of California restaurants and bars between 1992 and 2001.


The counter-argument to that, of course, is that non-smokers are then unable to assemble in places that are free of secondhand smoke. But is legislation the right way to make more smoke-free places? Businesses are already free to set “no smoking” policies on their property, but many have chosen not to, because they don’t wish to alienate potential customers. If non-smokers want more smoke-free zones, they should reverse the incentive: boycott businesses that are too smoky, and (more importantly) make it known that that’s why you’re boycotting that business.

I’ve already shown that smoking bans don’t have an effect on business revenue, so “no smoking” policies won’t either.

But, more importantly, why is it that non-smokers have to stage a boycott in order to protect their own health?! It doesn’t make sense! Why should non-smokers have to actively protect themselves? Shouldn’t the health of citizens be protected by default?

The argument that we should somehow protect smokers’ rights to smoke in public places is disingenuous. Smokers are the ones with an unhealthy habit, one which affects others. You’re welcome to go inside your home and smoke it up all you want. You’re also welcome to go eat at a restaurant without smoking. But when you smoke in public places, you actively encroach into other people’s space and health. So you should be prohibited from doing that, just like you’re prohibited from doing other things that affect others, like harassment or physical altercations or theft.

Plenty of businesses have already made the decision to go smoke-free without a ban. For example, smoking is rarely allowed in movie theaters, a practice which was once common. Other businesses have limited the amount of crossover between smoking and non-smoking sections. A restaurant in my hometown of Union, MO has the two separated by most of the building. The entire kitchen is between the two sections. The only experience of smoky air by non-smokers is during payment, a process which takes less than a few minutes.

Citations desperately needed. Pado’s claim that “plenty of businesses have already made the decision to go smoke-free without a ban” is not supported by any actual data. Same with his statement that “smoking is rarely allowed in movie theaters, a practice which was once common”.

Besides, smoking bans are not there only to protect customers. They’re also there to protect workers. Are the waiters in that restaurant allowed to refuse to serve smoking customers? If not, then you’re still exposing some non-smoking workers to secondhand smoke. And don’t give me any crap about, “oh, well, then they can go work someplace else!” That’s called “discrimination”.

I’ll cite some actual data about smoking habits and smoking bans in the United States.

First: per capita consumption of cigarettes, from the CDC. Per capita consumption peaks in 1973. By 2004, per capita consumption has dropped to 1937 levels.

The CDC also has data on actual smoking among high school students and adults in general. Cigarette use has been falling among all adults since 1965, when ~43% of all adults were “current cigarette smokers”. In 2007, the adult smoking rate was ~20%. In contrast, cigarette use among high school students increased from 1990 (~25%) to a peak in 1997 (~35%), and has declined to a rate of 20% by 2007.

When were smoking bans enacted? I can’t find data on theaters specifically, but the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (I know, consider the source) has a comprehensive list (PDF) of when 100% smokefree state or local laws were enacted for workplaces, restaurants, and bars, and the list starts in 1990. By 2009, they estimate that ~70% of the population of the United States is now covered by 100% smokefree laws.

Finally, UCSF researchers found that in communities where smoking bans were enacted, heart attack rates dropped by 17% after one year and by 36% after three.

From what I can tell, it’s true that smoking was on the decline well before smoking bans started to be enacted. But there’s evidence that smoking bans do help protect the health of citizens, and they have no effect on business revenues.

More importantly, cigarette use was still at a rate of 20% by 2007. That means 1 in 5 adults in the United States smokes. Without public smoking bans, there’d be a very high probability that I would be exposed to second-hand smoke every time I went out of my apartment. I shouldn’t need to have worry about my health when I go outside in public.

Pado (almost) ends with this statement:

But an outright [smoking] ban is bad for local business, and a slap in the face to personal liberty.

Bullshit. It’s not bad for local business, and it’s a slap in the face of people with unhealthy habits who have ridiculous expectations of others tolerating their harmful smoke. We’re talking about “personal liberty”, emphasis on “personal”. Your liberty is no longer personal when you start harming the health of others in public.

I honestly don’t understand why this is so hard to grasp.

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