On Smoking Bans

5 June 2004

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?