Cold Turkey Canard

The revealing Manicheanism of smoking ban debates


To ban or not to ban? That, alas, is the only question tobacco teetotalers seem willing to address as they face off against opponents of a proposal to ban smoking in Washington, D.C.'s bars and restaurants.

A hearing being held on the proposed ban today should make for gripping theater, but the ban's passage is now essentially a fait accompli. That should sadden anyone—smoker or non-smoker—who prizes the freedom of owners to decide what kind of environment they want to provide for their customers. But as unfortunate is the foregone opportunity for a compromise that might have satisfied all but the most puritanical banners while leaving a stool open at the bar for those who value choice and variety in urban nightlife.

District Councilmember Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), among the most vocal opponents of the ban, has introduced a compromise bill that would attempt to shift the balance of smoking and non-smoking establishments by imposing ventilation requirements and higher licensing fees on smoking bars while providing temporary tax incentives for businesses that choose to go completely non-smoking. It is an eminently diplomatic, reasonable proposal that has gained surprisingly little purchase. To understand why, it's necessary to dissect three main sources of support for a smoking ban:

  • The High-Banners: These are the true fundamentalists, the ones who would probably prefer to see cigarettes set aflame only in DEA bonfires. Health, to them, is self-evidently the highest good in life, and so the choice to smoke is eo ipso proof of irrationality in need of their solicitous correction. They think there ought not to be smoking in bars and restaurants largely because they think there ought not to be smoking. Anti-smoker nonpareil Stanton Glantz has explained that "although the nonsmokers' rights movement concentrates on protecting the nonsmoker rather than on urging the smoker to quit for his or her own benefit, clean indoor air legislation reduces smoking because it undercuts the social support network for smoking by implicitly defining smoking as an antisocial act."
  • The Grassroots: Most of the popular support for a ban comes not from full-blown worshippers at the altar of health, but ordinary citizens who simply prefer non-smoking environments—perhaps for health reasons, perhaps simply because they resent having to dry clean their shirts after a night out. They are, of course, already free to patronize any of the hundreds of totally smoke-free bars and restaurants in D.C., as well as places like Saint-Ex, which is smoke-free until late evening, or Wonderland Ballroom, which provides a smoking bar downstairs and a well ventilated non-smoking upstairs bar and dancefloor. But since many desirable venues still allow smoking, a ban is a handy way for these folks to expand their carousing options.
  • The Friends of the Worker: Unfortunately for ban proponents, neither of the above are particularly seemly public justifications for bossing around business owners. To the chagrin of the high-banners, tobacco is still a legal product, and most people still cleave to the quaint view that adults should be allowed to make foolish or unhealthy choices. As a corrolary, the simple rejoinder to those who don't care for smoky bars (or loud bars, or restaurants that serve bad food) has long been: Well, then, don't go into them. So while the two groups above remain the motive force behind a ban, the public debate has focused on the purported right of waiters and bartenders not to have to work in a smoky environment. (Though the bartenders themselves—many of them smokers—have been a conspicuously tiny portion of the ban-boosting chorus.) It's not obvious why choosing to accept whatever risk is entailed in being around second-hand smoke is inherently different from accepting any other unattractive feature of a job—late hours, frequent travel, the physical risks of working in jobs like construction, emotional and mental stress, or even simple tedium. But for better or worse, we seem to have collectively decided that some choices workers shouldn't have to—which in practice means "shouldn't be able to"—make. And banners say nobody should have to inhale smoke to pursue a career in bartending.

There are a dizzying array of ways to satisfy the latter two groups. There are proposals like Schwartz's that would provide a carrot for non-smoking establishments and a stick for those where one can still light up. Cities or municipalities could issue smoking licenses, akin to liquor licenses, establishing a limit on the number of permissible puffing places, or simply bundle such permissions with liquor licenses. And, of course, there are solutions like those worked out by Saint Ex and Wonderland, as well as ventilation technologies that will presumably only grow more sophisticated over time.

All of which, of course, is deeply dismaying to the high-banners. Suppose, as seems plausible, that the market has been slow in responding to consumers' growing preference for non-smoking venues. Within a few years, incentive packages like Schwartz's would likely produce a new equilibrium more reflective of those preferences, perhaps something closer to an even balance of smoking and non-smoking bars. The grassroots, with abundant non-smoking options to choose from, would probably feel little urgency to remove options from their smoker bretheren. And the argument that waiters or bartenders who continued to work in smoking establishments were somehow victims of coercion would seem ever more implausible. Indeed, if there turned out not to be much difference in the wages paid at smoking and non-smoking bars, it might give the lie to the notion that most workers had a strong preference on this front either way. In short, successful compromise solutions would undermine public support for further regulation, while still preserving the ability for those damned irrational smokers to indulge their habits without ducking out to the street like pariahs.

There's another potential problem for the banners with such a mixed-rule solution. Toboacco nannies have managed to convince much of the public that smoking bans have no negative effect on bar or restaurant revenues: Owners who permit smoking, they aver, are acting out of some kind of irrational atavism, neglecting their own economic self interest. After all, if overall bar revenues rise when smoking is utterly banned, wouldn't the voluntary-banners enjoy still higher revenue by drawing in smoke-averse customers?

The problem with most studies that have been conducted is that they look at changes within a single city or municipality over time, rather than at the relative revenue changes over time in comparable smoke-free and smoke-friendly areas. Any growth-slowing effect of smoking bans, in other words, may be concealed by a larger upward trend in hospitality revenues. A true mixed regime would allow for a more direct assessment of what consumers prefer. And, moreover, on the highly plausible assumption that at least some bar patrons prefer some opportunity to smoke—and will stay out longer at the cafe or bar when afforded that opportunity—mixed-regime cities should see a more flourishing restaurant and nightlife industry than those that opt for full bans. Cities that had gone wholly tobaccorein might think twice about letting a bit of smoke waft back in. Horrors!

There's a broad range of policy options that would allow smokers and non-smokers, patrons and workers alike to be satisfied. A thoughtful city council could preserve freedom of choice for patrons and owners while encouraging the expansion of venues that would accomodate smoke-averse carousers and barkeeps. Unfortunately, in D.C, legislators have let the high-banners blow smoke in their eyes.