Anywhere Except Inside and Outside

The new smoking section is beyond the pale


If you've gotten used to smoke-free bars, here's a new concept to wrap your mind around: smoke-free cigar lounges. This innovation comes to us courtesy of Washington state's voters, who recently approved an initiative that bans smoking in nearly every indoor location except for private residences.

The ban makes no exception for businesses whose raison d'etre is tobacco consumption, even if they have ventilation systems that whisk smoke away as soon as it's produced. By forbidding smoking within 25 feet of entrances and windows, it even threatens to eliminate sidewalk smoking sections and quick outdoor cigarette breaks

As these provisions suggest, the real motivation behind government-imposed smoking bans is not to shield customers and employees from secondhand smoke, although that rationale is popular with the general public. For the activists and government officials who push the bans, the main point is to discourage smoking by making it inconvenient and socially unacceptable, transforming it into a shameful vice practiced only in privacy and isolation.

That doesn't mean everyone who voted for the Washington ban, which will be the most restrictive state law of its kind in the country when it takes effect on December 8, is eager to save smokers from themselves. By and large, I'm sure, the ban's supporters simply wanted to avoid tobacco smoke without having to make any sacrifices.

For example, they did not want to have to choose between tolerating smoke and passing over otherwise appealing bars and restaurants that allow smoking. Instead they decided to force the owners of those establishments to change their policies by threatening to fine them and take away the licenses on which their livelihoods depend.

Contrary to the propaganda put out by the initiative campaign (which raised about $1.4 million, more than 100 times as much as the opposition), support for the ban probably had little to do with the possible long-term health effects of secondhand smoke. It's hard to believe there are many people who sit in smoky bars and worry that, if they stay there for 30 years, their tiny risk of lung cancer might increase slightly.

People who object to secondhand smoke are much more likely to be worried about the immediate smell and discomfort. But they feel that if they pretend to believe the smoke is not only bothering them but might be killing them, their complaint becomes a legally enforceable right.

There is nothing noble about this impulse to impose one's own tastes and preferences on everyone. "People…stood up and said we believe this is the right thing to do," an American Cancer Society spokesman told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after the vote. "We're proud to stand along [with] others who are trying to protect their community."

How much courage does it take, in a state where nonsmokers outnumber smokers by four to one, to declare that the minority's desires should count for nothing, even when business owners want to accommodate them? How admirable is it, in a state where 80 percent of restaurants already are smoke-free, to insist that the rest follow suit?

The employee protection excuse does not make this demand any more reasonable. As a nonsmoking Seattle bartender told The Seattle Times, "You know what you're getting into when you work in a bar. If I had a problem with smoke, I'd get another job."

Secondhand smoke is, in any case, not the main concern of those who promote smoking bans in the name of "public health." Laws like Washington's are "one of the most effective ways to provide the strong incentive often needed to get smokers to quit," according to John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.

"We know tough indoor laws are a motivator to quit," a spokesman for the Washington Department of Health told the Everett Herald. "We want to help people do that." How could smokers be anything but grateful?

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. Sullum's weekly column is distributed by Creators Syndicate. If you'd like to see it in your local newspaper, please e-mail or call the editorial page editor today.