In New Orleans, smoking is a favorite past time of many generations. Now more than ever, smoking is a socially accepted, regardless of gender or age. Widespread use has even led to the phenomenon of the “social smoker”. While the dangerous effects of smoking have been widely exposed, recent attempts at legislation have evoked a firestorm of controversy. As with most controversial issues, the smoking debate has become heavily politicized. On January 1st, 2007, Louisiana, Senate Bill 742 was passed, which banned smoking in restaurants. This bill defined restaurants as any establishment receiving greater than 50% of its revenues from food sales. Restaurant and bar owners argue that the government is becoming too involved in private business practice. Should the government have the authority to dictate what’s appropriate?
As you probably know, smoking is very controversial. In a struggling city, economically-tied to hospitality, it is very important that Louisiana lawmakers get this right. During these hard times, New Orleanians must preserve the same accepting, friendly environment that has made us so unique. No other city embraces cultural differences quite like New Orleans: where whites, blacks, Hispanics, and others can chit-chat casually during an afternoon stroll or streetcar ride – with no moments of that awkward silence so common in other cities. If you’ve traveled outside of New Orleans, you’ve probably noticed the difference. We say “Hi” to strangers every day and even hug unknowns when the Saints score a touchdown. New Orleans is a city that embraces everything from decadence to interracial relationships to minority leadership; the city that elected the first Vietnamese American to Congress in US History – Joseph Cao. We are known as a city that accepts everyone – the city that doesn’t judge. We can’t let a hot-button issue like smoking, where seemingly everyone has an opinion, distract us from that culture. We don’t want to be the kind of city that punishes the many for the complaints of the few. New Orleans needs welcome everyone, smokers and nonsmokers alike.
We have become society focused on shaping lifestyles through regulation. Are smoking bans enacted to protect nonsmokers or are they passed to “encourage” (see Al Capone) smokers to limit their habits? Proponents of the bans have even admitted their logical fallacy. In an interview on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit!, Joe Churner – President of Smoke-Free Educational Services – made it clear: “The leading cause of death and disease is tobacco addiction”. However, this basis for supporting smoking bans is nonsensical. Second-hank smoke is not addictive. Obviously, the goal is not to protect the “rights” of nonsmokers, but to reduce the number of smokers. The government simply has no place in this discussion or decision. In “Is the Smoking Ban a Good Idea”, Christopher Hitchins, a radical columnist for Vanity Fair, provides a unique view on the smoking ban controversy in London. His argument, delivered through sarcastic tone and references, delivers several thought-provoking messages. He argues that the smoking ban is “no longer about the protection of nonsmokers.” Rather,” he continues, “It is about state-enforced behavior modification”. He likens the ban to the prohibition movements of the 1920s. Hitchins makes it clear: this isn’t about health, it’s about control.
What do you think? Everyone knows exposure to smoky air is more dangerous than “clean” air. We’ve watched the commercials and read the billboards; we know about carcinogens and toxins and that “every cigarette takes seven years of your life”. Sure – there’s no doubt about it: smoking is dangerous. We’d certainly be hard-pressed to identify advocates for the benefits of smoking. But what about nonsmokers? Is second-hand smoke deleterious enough to justify the redefining of our civil liberties? As David Kuneman addresses in his article, “The Myth of Second Hand Smoke”, according to the World Health Organization, second-hand smoke only negligibly increases the risks of lung cancer. In fact, the US Department of Energy agrees: second-hand smoke simply isn’t as dangerous as expected. Kuneman notes that even OSHA revoked a twelve year petition for the banning of smoking in workplaces based on a “lack of evidence”. And sure, cigarette smoke can be annoying and disgusting and include many other bothersome traits, but can we ban something because it is simply…..malodorous? As Penn and Teller insinuated, banning smoking on the basis of its smell is akin to banning music you don’t want to hear. If you don’t like the music, go somewhere else.
Perhaps the most glaring assessment of the “harms” of smoking came from Congressional Research Service:
Now that you’ve seen the facts, has your opinion changed? If second hand smoke isn’t dangerous, why ban smoking? The underlying basis of these bans is government interference and control. Should the government be allowed to ban a legal practice in a private setting? The answer is simple: No.
Smoking policies should be handled by bar owners – not elected officials. Business owners should have the ability to operate their companies in the way they see fit. The market should dictate the nature of business, not the government. If enough people stop going to a bar or restaurant because they do not want to be around smoking, then the bar owner will make the decision to ban smoking in his establishment. American was founded on the principles of laissez-faire, defined by dictionary.com as the “practice or doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of others, especially with reference to individual conduct or freedom of action”. While laissez-faire typically refers to economic policy, the definition above identifies its broad scope. Our country was founded on this principle: let people manage their own affairs – and more importantly, keep government out. The government has plenty of roles, none of which should include restricting a legal activity in a private setting.
We need to talk about privilege. Proponents of these smoking bans argue that smokers can simply walk outside to smoke. In the same sense, however, patrons bothered by smoke also have the option to take their business elsewhere. Thomas Lambert, Professor of Anti-Trust Law at the University of Missouri, makes the case for establishment owners in his essay, “The Case Against Smoking Bans”. Lambert argues that unlike public places, where the air is owned by everyone, air within private property is owned by the business owner. Therefore, he should be permitted to maintain the air quality that maximizes patronage. Lambert contends that nonsmokers will leave if they are not “compensated by some positive attribute of the space at issue – say, cheap drinks or particularly attractive clientele.” His argument makes tons of sense. If business owners do not provide some enticement for nonsmokers, he will always lose them to alternatives. Moreover, smoking increases economic efficiency by creating varieties of establishments, some that offer smoking and some that do not. Forcing businesses to adopt no-smoking policies inhibits economic growth by dictating their market and blending their uniqueness. Therefore, we can only conclude that smoking bans inhibit small business proliferation and undermine classical American culture. What about bartenders and waitresses in smoking environments? Shouldn’t we protect them from second-hand smoke. Lambert points out that these employees are compensated as well. Smelling like cigarettes at the end of the night comes at a price: employees may demand higher pay for smoky working conditions, just as deep-sea fisherman demand higher pay than janitors. If insufficiently compensated, an unsatisfied employee will seek employment where pay is commensurate with the quality of the job.
At the end of the day, we must review the facts. Second hand smoke has not proven to be dangerous. The public has been misguided by assumptions and clever advertising by smoking-ban proponents. Since second hand smoke is not an immediate health hazard, there is no reason we should waver from our laissez-faire roots of limited government. New Orleans’ business owners should be afforded the opportunity to operate as they see fit.
We, as Americans, need to revoke our rights and fight these bans.