Pop Culture
Apr 24, 2009, 07:11AM

Ban Smoking Bans

Smoking bans are ineffective, intrusive, and un-American.

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It was almost impossible last year to get into the Brown Jug, a bar right next to the University of Michigan’s campus. The line was wrapped around the block by midnight every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights (and even the occasional Tuesday). During the last weeks of school, you needed to be at the bar by 9:30 or 10 every night just to ensure you could have your own corner to stand, down sugary drinks, and take in a lot of second– or first-hand smoke. Last Thursday, I walked in at 12:15 and there was no line. Inside, the front half of the bar was about 70 percent full and the back was completely empty. This is the last weekend of classes for the University of Michigan, not some random freezing weekend in the midst of midterms.   

About 50 feet away, on the same stretch of South University Ave., there was a line halfway around the block to get into Good Time Charley’s. A year ago, Charley’s was the “Backup Jug,” and a line there only meant that you definitely weren’t getting into the Jug that night. In trying to understand this phenomenon over the past six months or so, I’ve been asking a lot of people why—especially in the surprisingly numerous times where I’ll suggest the Jug and someone will ask to go to Charley’s instead. Maybe it’s because the drinks are a little bit cheaper. But that’s not what I’ve found out. The answer has literally been the same every single time: smoking is banned inside Charley’s. 

Right now, there is very probably someone sitting on a stoop somewhere in Michigan, looking out into the world, smoking a cigarette, and worrying a little bit about this. Smoking ban. Once those words have been uttered, there is no un-saying them. There are states where those words don’t stick, but once a state starts talking your bars can go from smoky to smoke-free just like that.

I know this haunting, nagging fatalism because at one point in my life, I was a smoker. I remember with horror the first time I saw those words floated in print, a Baltimore Sun story mentioning a possible ban in Baltimore City. The ban became real, and then it extended statewide across Maryland. As a student in Michigan, I watched from afar as late nights at the diner sucking down Cokes and smokes abruptly became a thing of the past.  

My relationship with government paternalism when it comes to public health is a tortured one. I’ve gone on record supporting the almost comically unpopular soda tax (don’t worry, more on this in a moment) but also believe that all drugs should be legalized. The now-un-proposed tax on sodas—like the actual tax on cigarettes—is a disincentive aimed at reducing the use of a harmful substance. Now, this definition of “harmful” is the troubling aspect of the situation but if you don’t believe soda to be harmful, then of course you won’t support any regulation. Even cigarettes have their boosters.

Taxes, though, do work in curbing tobacco use. In a Journal of Public Health Policy article, David Austin and David Altman estimate that a one-dollar-per-pack price increase in 1999 lowered cigarette consumption by between 15 and 38 percent. Likewise, if you compare tax rates to cigarette usage (the best way to do this is go state by state using CDC state comparison charts, you can see that higher taxes almost invariably lead to lower smoking rates. In general, smoking rates have fallen precipitously across the country in the last decade, something that could be attributed to better education, new taxes, changing health and cultural norms, or some combination thereof. Honestly, the combination of a price increase, feeling unhealthy all the time, and the fact that smoking was much more taboo with my friends in Ann Arbor than those in Maryland made it much easier for me to quit. 

So, what’s the difference between a tax and ban on smoking in bars? Well, the two certainly are methods to achieve the same basic end, government-encouraged smoking cessation, but the paths are fundamentally different in their approach, and it’s the smoking ban’s approach that leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. 

Assuming a cigarette tax’s primary goal is public health, the secondary goal is generating government revenue. It’s straightforward. Now, the secondary goal for a smoking ban in bars is… is what? Smoking bans can negatively affect tax revenues and tamper down bar and restaurant production. There’s even been a researched link between the smoking ban and drunk driving, a negative health risk to be sure, as people cross state or city lines for the freedom to smoke and drink at the same establishment (though this would obviously be eliminated by a universal ban).  

Because most of the smoking bans are new, there isn’t much evidence one or way or the other about the influence they have on smoking rates or long-term public health. Yet, we already have proven methods of reducing consumption, taxes and education, that are severely less invasive. Taxes do not take anything away from you aside from money. It leaves the decision to you, even if it is trying to nudge you in a certain direction.  

Contrast this to the government imposing its will on private property. In New York City, you are technically not allowed to smoke outside, though this is hardly, if ever, enforced. The government there has laid claim to the air, it has laid claim to what you legally do in your home, and laid claim to what legal activities business owners can allow in their establishment. I can maybe buy the second-hand smoke argument in a ban on workplace smoking, as you have no individual decision in picking your environment, but there is no justification for this in a bar. When you apply to work at a bar, you will instantly know from the second you walk in that you may be in an environment with or without smoke. If you don’t like smoke, walk out of the bar, don’t apply for a job, don’t stop for a drink, or ask your friends if you can go somewhere else. If you think smokers will win the argument every time and force their unwilling friends to bask in secondhand smoke, ask Charley’s owners how business has been. 

If the government really needs to get involved to jump start things, why not make licenses, a la liquor licenses, that bars can apply and pay for allowing them to permit smoking. That way the government is generating cash, it isn’t totally overstepping the bounds of a free market, and it can accommodate smoker-heavy cities where smoke-free bars may have a tougher time attracting customers. As far as worst case scenarios go, I think I could live with that. 

No one is saying you should be able to smoke in operating rooms again—all that I’m asking is that we allow people to smoke in a bar or maybe even, God forbid, a well-ventilated, sectioned-off portion of a restaurant.

  • No. While your one example of a bar that banned smoking doing better than another is compelling, you will find that other local bars that banned smoking on their own (Casey's Tavern comes to mind) have seen a dramatic reduction is business and the loss of regulars. You also fail to recognize extraneous factors in play such as 1. the Jug was always packed, loud and had terrible specials. 2. Charleys was shut down and re-opened by the owners of BTB, who undoubtedly improved the atmosphere in the place. 3. A COLLEGE CAMPUS is not the best example of whether a ban should be an individual bar's choice. Living in Baltimore for the last two years, the bars are as crowded as I've ever seen them and I have found myself going to establishments that I never would have gone to before, and am more likely to go out than I was before a ban. Bars that wish to accommodate have added outdoor seating and improved the streetscape in certain areas. The free market discourages a non-smoking establishment, with a few exceptions. A ban is the way to go. If you can give me one legitimate reason not to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, other than "big brother" then maybe I'll listen. But if smokers are allowed to go outside and smoke, I fail to see how a ban isn't unambiguously the best societal choice.

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  • This article could've been written five years ago. It's a battle that's been lost by pro-smoking groups. And, as dtdowntown says, most establishments haven't suffered their feared drop in patronage. I smoke myself, and don't like that I'm treated like a pariah even outside, but you move along. The tax revenue situation is a little different, for if packs of cigarettes become way too expensive--and it's always a quick fix for governments to add another buck on the price--the black market will get into the act.

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  • Ah, you non-smokers and your, well, you can go outside and smoke. Have you ever tried to huddle under a 5ft x 3ft awning with 6 other smokers in the middle of a pouring rain! HAVE YOU NO HEART!

  • None whatsoever. Here's a question: would you rather spend an extra $2 per pack in tax, above what you pay now, or pay the same price as you do now but not be allowed to smoke in bars/restaurants? I'm genuinely curious.

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  • I'd go for the cheaper smokes, no question about. I'm grew up with the no-smoking bans. Here's a secret about Los Angeles, supposedly one of the most intolerant smoking cities: drive along the PCH for a stretch and the amount of people smoking in their cars is enormous.

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  • I take it you're a smoker, Dave. I'm not, and the move out to smoke-free CA has markedly improved my life. No longer do I come home late from bars or concerts smelling like smoke. I'm not saying the ban has improved the public good, but it has without a doubt bettered mine.

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  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that bans on smoking in bars/restaurants were brought about by workers' rights groups. The primary issues at hand are neither public health concerns for patrons (smokers & non-smokers) nor revenue enhancement. First and foremost, smoking bans protect WORKERS from being forced to work in an unhealthy environment. David, you say to these job-seekers, "If you don't like smoke, walk out of the bar, don't apply for a job, don't stop for a drink..." If McDonald's didn't have strict health and safety standards, would you tell someone looking for work there, "If you don't like boiling grease, look for another job." I'm not equating second-hand smoke with grease burns, but I think your article overlooks the fact that the first advocates for smoking bans were workers' rights groups, not anti-tobacco health nuts. And this is neither here nor there, but I'm a smoker.

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  • There have been so many different smoking bans across the country, and not all of them were generated by workers' rights groups. Some were, of course, but others were initiated by the second-hand smoke chorus. All of which doesn't really matter at this point because indoor bans on smoking are ingrained in the culture; younger people can't remember, and probably wouldn't believe you, when you recall that it wasn't that long ago you could smoke on planes and trains. As a former smoker, there was nothing better than having a smoke between cars on the LIRR, with the wind blowing and train going rickety-rick past potato fields. Just a different era and the issue is now moot.

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