Smoke & Mirrors

As someone who does not smoke, I am sympathetic to the complaints of other non-smokers about the ill effects they must endure when patronizing restaurants, bars, and clubs where smoking is permitted and pervasive. Indeed, as someone who not only suffered from childhood asthma but has also been diagnosed with a mild allergy to tobacco, I have perhaps more justification than many to air my smoky grievances. Yet despite all of this, I in no way support a smoking ban in private establishments. “Why is that, Jeff” asks Fig.

“BECAUSE IT RENDERS OUR HIGHWAYS INTO DIE-WAYS!” comes the soft-spoken reply:

A rigorous statistical examination has found that smoking bans increase drunken-driving fatalities…[J]urisdictions with smoking bans often border jurisdictions without bans, and some bars may skirt the ban, so that smokers can bypass the ban with extra driving…The authors estimate that smoking bans increase fatal drunken-driving accidents by about 13 percent, or about 2.5 such accidents per year for a typical county.

Actually, though I think these findings are interesting and policymakers should be held accountable for them, it’s not the main reason I do not support smoking bans.

But my main reason—while probably easy enough to infer—is irrelevant except to say that it is based upon a principle that is, at least, consistent and coherent, which is much more than I can say for any arguments I’ve heard in favor of bans (in all fairness, many arguments against bans e.g. ‘It’ll hurt business’ are equally unprincipled). At the heart of the issue is, I think, the failure to recognize that 1) private establishments are in fact private and 2) anyone who either works or patronizes a private establishment does so voluntarily and has thus revealed a preference to be there over the alternatives available.

To make my point clearer, think about “Granny’s house” instead of a “private establishment.” If one does not support a legislated ban on smoking in Granny’s house, then on what basis could one justify a ban in any another private place? Why is Granny allowed to set Granny law regarding smoking in her home but not the proprietor of a restaurant? Why are the freely-made decisions of anyone who chooses to be in Granny’s house (including, say, a personal maid) perfectly fine, but not in a bar?

As for those who would favor a national ban, I wonder what arguments they could offer that could not be equally, if not more aptly, applied to a legal restriction on having children (to give one example of many), which can be tremendously costly along several dimensions for both parent, child, and third-parties. If one doesn’t support the latter, how can one coherently support the former?

There are those, of course, who don’t support the ban on any particular principle but rather on the notion that it’s a relatively harmless bit of soft paternalism. I trust their confidence would be just as steadfast if they were driving home late on a Saturday night in a smoke-free county.

Addendum: As I was trying to find a copy of the economics paper I referenced above, I discovered that one of the authors is now gainfully employed at my alma mater. Kudos.