Friday, January 27, 2006

Second-Hand Smoke

Khorbin has recently raised the issue of second-hand smoke. He asserts, inter alia, that the science behind the claimed harms of second-hand smoke is bad science. So, since science is his area, I’ll move on to the more practical questions in relation to second-hand smoke.

First, I don’t think that there is any reason, under the Constitution, that local governments can’t outlaw smoking in public places or anywhere. Of course, the right to privacy may be another concern, but I don’t think that’s a very good constitutional doctrine anyway. And regardless, it wouldn’t affect businesses that cater to the public. This wouldn’t be any different even if there was irrefutable proof that second-hand smoke does not kill.

Lincoln, Nebraska, where I live, has a city-wide ban on smoking in public buildings. This includes bars. This went into effect about a year ago. In the next three months, bars reported something like a 50% decline in revenues, and waiters reported even worse drops in tips. People were all over the map on the issue (many approved, many didn’t), but I suspect that the people it actually affects were the people unhappy about it. In other words, most people who are happy about the ban are people that don’t go to bars anyway because, let’s face it, most people who consider themselves non-smokers will become smokers when they’re drinking.

Is there any way to allow voting on this issue only at the bars, so that only those affected have a say? By way of analogy, should we let people who were born blind regulate optometrists, or people who drive everywhere decide the path of the city’s bike trail?

I’m a little more familiar with Norfolk, Nebraska, a town close to where I grew up. It has the only Burger King and McDonald’s of which I am aware that allow smoking. You read that right: smoking in Burger King and McDonald’s. There are quite a few bars there too, and almost all of them allow smoking. One that doesn’t is the Sports Den (I think there may be one other non-smoking bar in Norfolk). I went to the Sports Den a little over a month ago, and, you know what? It was packed. The other bars weren’t even close to having that kind of business.

So, in effect, the market is how people vote on the issue in Norfolk. And it makes everyone happy, because smokers can go to smoking bars and non-smokers can go to non-smoking bars. The market should regulate itself, because if there is more demand for (non)smoking space, then the bars will respond. And it caters to the views of only the people who use the service.

Is there any reason we can’t allow the market to regulate smoking in bars?

Would a better solution be to put businesses to a forced choice? By that I mean this: you can either be a smoking establishment or a non-smoking establishment. You can’t have a smoking and a non-smoking section. This way, people can’t complain about the smoke entering the non-smoking section (we’ve all heard of peeing and non-peeing sections in a swimming pool), and the market should effectively regulate it.
Of course, the expected argument against this goes like this: “I’m a non-smoker, and I want to go eat the food at restaurant X. I shouldn’t be forced out because of the smoke.” My response? It’s part of the atmosphere. If a restaurant has a poor atmosphere, then you won’t go there, whether it’s because of smoke or loud, annoying music.
And of course, you could limit smoking establishments to bars only. The problem with that is assessing whether a restaurant is indeed a “bar” or a “restaurant.” This involves complicated monitoring of income from various sources in the bar, and it’s easily manipulated (e.g. they can give you a cheaper meal if you order X# drinks).

Is there any moral reason we should (or shouldn’t) allow the bar owner to decide whether he/she wants to allow smoking? Isn’t individual freedom and choice a core American value?

Are there other, more palatable, alternatives? Such as taxing smoking bars at a higher rate than non-smoking bars, in order to sway the market in one direction? “Sin” taxes have long been accepted in society, and it seems to make sense to tax one “sin” because of another related one.

What do you guys think?


  1. The market should regulate behavior like smoking. I'm in agreement with you that places of business should be able to set their own regulations regarding smoking.

    As an indoor air quality specialist I can tell you that segregated smoking and non-smoking areas just don't work since they generally share the same air conditioning system which just recirculates the pollutants.

    If you don't want to eat in a smokey bar or restuarant then don't go there. The owners will figure it out soon enough when they start losing business. I'm a little hard of hearing and have trouble in noisey places. Because of this I don't frequent noisey restuarants. However I don't advocate that restuarants have a "quiet" policy.

  2. Further,

    What if you were a waitress/waiter at one of the "noisey" bars and suffered permanent partial hearing loss as a result of your forced servitude?

    Banning a legal activity like smoking is not so different from banning a legal activity like noise. In fact, it may be more justifiable for a government to regulate noise because excessive noise is probably related to a legitimate governmental interest, i.e. noise travels far and disrupts the peace and civility of a community while smoke generally stays or "clings" to those who are directly around it.

    However, the noise, of course, will have less health effects (if you believe that second hand smoke "kills" (anymore than living necessarily "kills")).

    Should I seek an attorney regarding my partial hearing loss claim against the noisey bar?

  3. It's interesting to note that, logically, a bar that is non-smoking by choice of the management will probably have their business hurt just as much by a smoking ban than a bar that caters to smokers.

    Before a smoking ban, the bar (such as the Sports Den in Norfolk) that caters to non-smokers will typically get a disproportionate amount of non-smokers frequenting it, since it is a "service" that the bar provides, and there are not many people providing this "service."

    However, once a smoking ban is instituted, these people will have many more choices in bars that offer (or, more accurately, are forced to offer) this "service," meaning it makes it harder for them to earn nonsmokers' business.

    All this in addition to the fact that some smokers go to bars for the simple fact that it is a place where they can hang out and smoke. I know many people that absolutely refuse to go to bars in Lincoln, because smoking is part of their preferred bar experience.

    I personally think a bar should be smoky and loud, and that this adds to the "hanging out" experience in some strange way. Can't explain it, maybe it's just what I'm used to...

  4. Hmm, I think it's a little different in the UK- literally ever pub has smoking, so if you want to go for a drink, you are going to have to put up with smoke. It doesn't affect me that badly unless the place is particularly smokey, but it will put some off.

    Ultimately, if there is no health issue, then there is no real justification for banning smoking. If there is one, I think it is entirely justified.

  5. In response to Mr K's comment there is obviously a health issue related to second hand smoke I don't think anyone is disputing that fact.

    The statement that most people who consider themselves non-smokers will become smokers when there drinking is absolutely ridiculous. Many people including myself enjoying having a drink or two but the alcohol does not cause us to suddenly want to light one up. Please tell me what logic was used to come up with that conclusion.

    Also, with maybe the exception of bars, an entreprenuer in my opinion to open an establishment such as a restuarant that advertised itself as a smoking establishment only. You elminate an good percentage of your potential customers right off the bat. Smokers have to eat as well and will eat in a non-smoking establishment but I don't think the same could be said for the non-smoker. Just a theory.

  6. FYI-Been a social drinker since I was 21 and could legally enter a bar...yet never had even one puff. Your logic is extremely flawed.

  7. Good comments everyone. Just a couple things to add:

    1. My statement that most people who consider themselves non-smokers will smoke when drinking is based on personal experience with many people. It turns out your experiences aren't the same, so maybe things are different outside small-town Nebraska in that regard. Also, it's not "an unadulterated bunch of hoo-ha," because I said that these are people who consider themselves to be non-smokers. I didn't say they are non-smokers.

    2. Apparently Omaha, a city at least 40 times as large as Norfolk, does not have any non-smoking bars. A story on the news tonight was that one bar will become non-smoking when they reopen on February 1st, after removing old carpeting and other things that would retain the smell. They apparently don't expect a lot of business after the switch. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.

  8. "In response to Mr K's comment there is obviously a health issue related to second hand smoke I don't think anyone is disputing that fact."

    I am. Read the linked-to post from my blog.

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