Apparently the proposed smoking ban introduced into the General Assembly is getting more attention than before. The topic has reached into the 2009 Governor’s race with candidate Bob McDonnell (R) coming out in opposition to the ban. (A WTOP story makes a big deal out of the fact that McDonnell is against it while Republican House Speaker Bill Howell supports it.) The ban is the subject of a few recent posts over at Too Conservative and those posts, themselves, are on opposite sides of the debate.
Well, at the very least, anyone who says conservatives are all group-thinkers can lay that myth aside.
The topic has come up right here on a few occasions over the last couple of years and my position today is the same as it was the last time I mentioned it: I’m of mixed mind about it. On the one hand I’m a firm believer in the market as a motivator. If someone who owns a business – a restaurant or bar in this case – wants to permit smoking on the premises, then the people who don’t want to be in that environment will (or should) avoid going there. The owner has a decision to make: is the smoking-permissive atmosphere driving away more customers than it draws? If the answer is “yes” and the owner’s in business to make money rather than a political statement, he’ll make whatever move he needs to do to bring in those potential customers. That means setting aside a specific smoking area or banning the practice entirely. As word gets around that people can come in to enjoy the food and drink without walking out smelling like a forest fire they’ll start coming in. He makes money and – cha-ching! – everyone’s happy. If the answer to his calculation on customer draw comes out to “no” (meaning he won’t bring in more people by going non-smoking) then he’ll leave things as they are. His customer base will consist of smokers and people who will tolerate it and life goes on.
I like the market model because it’s self-regulating and self-perpetuating. It doesn’t require enforcement routines paid for out of the public till.
On the other hand, I like to breathe. I like to enjoy my morning coffee while reading the news as much as the next guy and I’d prefer to do that without being downwind of a walking dioxin emitter. And here’s the thing my experience has shown me: there are an awful lot of smokers out there who are 100%, completely inconsiderate of non-smokers. Their attitude is “to hell with ‘em.” “If they don’t want to smell the smoke they can go somewhere else.” The problem is if I come into an area that a smoker is sitting in and I sit down next to him, I’m not doing anything to change the environment he’s enjoying. My simple presence doesn’t make it difficult for him to breathe, doesn’t stink up his clothes, and doesn’t increase the likelihood of him developing serious medical issues down the road. The reverse is not true. Permitting smoking in venues that cater to the public creates a situation where an individual with no authority over a given area can interdict that area to non-smokers on a whim. People with every right to be there are, at his discretion, forced to accept what is absolutely a toxic emission at any time he so chooses. Their only recourse is to leave and go somewhere else. Unless, of course, another smoker decides to go to that somewhere else and force them out again.
If I saw some consistent attitude of attempted coexistence displayed by smokers in the places I go during my daily life, this discussion would end right there. But I don’t. I see people who feel no problem whatsoever trailing their burning residue anywhere they like, again with the “to hell with them” attitude I mentioned above. They clearly won’t start on their own, so what alternative to a ban in those places do we have?
The problem with doing that is the precedent it sets. If it’s OK to ban the behavior in this case as a health concern, it opens the notion of banning something else because that something else is also a health concern. Like trans-fats, for instance. (No, that’s not a hypothetical.) Concern for controlling the scope of this proposed smoking ban is legitimate and I’ve seen no hesitation on the part of people calling for this ban to stop with smoking.
I’ve heard it proposed that we perhaps treat smoking establishments as we do drinking establishments. That means that if an owner wants to permit smoking on site, they need to be licensed to do so. More commentary has mentioned that businesses should provide true separation of smoking and non-smoking areas through the use of partitions and vaccuum air systems. I agree and I’ll mix the two ideas. We require that bars have the necessary systems in place to ensure under-age drinking doesn’t occur as a requirement to getting and keeping that license. If an owner wants to permit smoking, they need to have these systems in place to separate the smokers’ exhaust from the air non-smokers are in to have the smoking-premises permit.
Now, I’d like to see us not need to ban smoking outright in private enterprise. But there’s a precedent in demanding that people not engage in behavior that fouls the air for everyone. You can’t burn trash or hazardous waste on your property and allow the smoke from that fire to waft over your neighbors’ houses. You can’t dump sludge into the creek running alongside of your property and watch the gunk flow downstream past other people’s property. Both of those acts are illegal and doing them anyway can get you busted. It’s not unreasonable for people to feel the same way about having to sit in the poison cloud of someone’s cigarette. If those people who smoke or who support smokers would like to keep the ban from being put in place, they need to suggest solutions to this problem that don’t rest solely on the shoulders of those of us who don’t smoke and require us to simply run away from the smokers whenever they get a yen to blaze one up.