Help a Smoker: Show Him the Door

E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, sounds resigned to a future in which the hospitality industry will be forbidden to accommodate smokers. "The whole thing seems to be boiling down to an employee safety issue at this point," he tells The New York Times.

That's the rationale New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has emphasized in proposing that the city's smoking ban be extended to all bars and restaurants, with a fine of up to $100 and a jail sentence of up to 30 days for smokers who fail to comply. Now it looks like his approach may be imitated by nearby jurisdictions, creating what the Times calls "an eight-county no-smoking zone across lower New York State."

Workplace safety is also the official goal of comprehensive smoking bans in California and Delaware, as well as a proposed ban in Florida. So when Timothy Filler, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, hails Bloomberg's plan as "a great step forward in public health," you might assume he's talking about the health of waiters and bartenders.

From the perspective of anti-tobacco activists, however, smoking bans promote "public health" primarily by making the habit less convenient and less socially acceptable, thereby encouraging smokers to quit. In 1994, testifying about the impact of federal legislation that would have banned smoking in most businesses, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said "the reduction in smoker mortality due to smokers who quit, cut back, or do not start is estimated to range from about 33,000 to 99,000 lives per year." Protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke was the excuse for the bill, but protecting smokers from themselves was the main expected benefit.

The same motivation can be seen in New York. A Bloomberg aide told the Times "the mayor will push this [smoking ban] for all the same reasons he pushed the cigarette tax." When Bloomberg approved an unprecedented 1,800 percent increase in New York City's cigarette tax, pushing the price of premium brands to around $7.50 a pack, he said his aim was to deter smoking by making it prohibitively expensive.

Similarly, Christine Quinn, chairwoman of the New York City Council's health committee, clearly has more than employees in mind when she imagines a smoking ban covering the whole metropolitan area. "If someone is going to drive from Manhattan to Orange County [New Jersey] to have a cigarette," she told the Times, "then there is really not much we can do to help that person."

Smokers, of course, did not ask for Quinn's "help," and they're not exactly grateful for it. But smoking bans are paternalistic even as workplace safety measures. They're based on the assumption that employees are not capable of judging their own interests and therefore should not be allowed to tolerate secondhand smoke in exchange for higher pay, bigger tips, better benefits, or otherwise superior working conditions. A Manhattan bartender alluded to such tradeoffs when he told the Associated Press, "Being subjected to smoke is part of my job."

The extent of the danger posed by secondhand smoke remains controversial, but one thing is clear: In a country where the government still allows people to work as miners, loggers, and boxers, it's absurd that serving drinks in a smoky bar is thought to pose an unacceptable risk.

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