LATELY — 5 June 2004

On Smoking Bans

A number of places have recently banned smoking in places such as bars and restaurants. (Excellent BBC summary.) I can’t agree that this is a necessary move: to be sure, smoking in public places raises several public health, environmental cleanliness, and employer liability issues, but in all cases, I think, these can be resolved by less invasive and less drastic means that a total ban.

I do believe that governments should support those who wish to live their lives without having to breathe smoke. As such, places no regular person can reasonably avoid–such as airports, railway stations, government buildings–should be smoke free. I also think that workplaces should be required to be smoke-free (well, most of them), as should shopping malls. Shopping malls are close to my limit, though, and bars and restaurants are very much over it: there are very many bars and restaurants, and I do not think it necessary that all of them be smoke-free. (There is no “right” to a smoke-less dining experience everywhere one choose to eat anymore than there is a “right” to kosher food, pleasant music, or a welcome for babies.) It is reasonable for non-smokers to expect a choice–but any more than this is an unnecessary imposition.

The problem, of course, is that at present, most bars and restaurants do allow smoking: non-smokers don’t get no choice. What should governments do? Even though the market was for some reason by itself not able to “generate” large numbers of non-smoking restaurants (well at least non-fast-food ones: I’d be interested to know economists’ thoughts on why this is), there is undoubtably considerable public support for the non-smoking venues. It therefore seems likely that if the government were to impose a “smoking tax” (of sufficient cost), a large number of venues would not pay, and thereby becomes non-smoking venues. This would automatically produce choice for non-smokers, as well as have the additional benefit of discouraging smoking in circumstances where it bothers others (since the cost of the tax would be passed on to smokers). (Cigarettes currently attract the same tax whether they are smoked discretely at home, or breathed directly into the lungs of babies…)

A large number of non-smoking bars, restaurants and pubs would also produce choice for those who work in hospitality. (This is the other main objection: that no worker should be subjected to passive smoke.) However, it would remain the case that some would still work in a smokey environment. Should anything be done about this? I don’t think so–but I’m not completely sure. It’s true that we make no particular effort to ensure that all jobs are equally safe (crab fishing in Alaska seems to be the most dangerous in the U.S.): in most cases, we seem comfortable with the notion that if workers are in greater risk, an appropriate compensation is greater pay. But would hospitality workers demand greater pay? (Are they in the position to?) Does it matter if they do not? Would the government need to mandate that, say, workers in smokey venues be paid 10% more?