The Smoking Ban

Life never ceases to amaze me. I never thought that I’d hear a fellow Libertarian argue in favor of a smoking ban in restaurants, but at this year’s North Carolina Libertarian Party State Convention, one of them did exactly that.

Why? Because his mother died of lung cancer. Just as Rep. Hugh Holliman of Davidson County, whose sister died of lung cancer, proposed to ban smoking from practically all public and private buildings.

Their tragedies are enormous. It’s easy to feel for them, and rage at the stupidity that led to their loved ones’ needless suffering and death. But history has taught us, time and time again, that making public policy based on emotional reactions is generally a bad idea.

It’s amazing how emotion affects our ability to think rationally. Too often, we let emotion drive our public policy, whether it’s sympathy for the poor, love for our children, hatred of intolerance and injustice, or indignation at government overstepping its bounds. All of these are wonderful emotions that we all need, but they should be tempered with rational, logical, skeptical thought when planning public policy.

I hate smoking. I always have. I have never smoked a single cigarette in my life, and never will. I can’t stand to be around someone who’s smoking, and certainly not when I’m eating. A ban on smoking in restaurants and other places of business is very tempting, especially coupled with the fear of the health risks of breathing second-hand smoke. That’s why this is so powerful: the combination of an emotional desire with what appears to be rational, scientific reasoning.

However, the studies as published by the EPA in 1992 were manipulated. They cherry-picked the studies to include the ones with the greatest effect, exaggerating the dangers of second-hand smoke when the studies actually showed no significant increase in lung cancer rates. Little wonder, then, that a court ruling rejected the EPA’s study in 1998.

In fact, the EPA’s figure that the average non-smoker inhales the equivalent of one cigarette every five days, according to several studies that directly monitored the air breathed by non-smokers, is twelve times too high. A similar study by the Department of Energy which targeted bartenders and restaurant workers, who are said to have the highest risk of passive smoking lung cancer, showed that their exposure was considerably lower than OSHA requirements.

Unfortunately, scientific reasoning is often not enough to combat an idea that someone has come to believe in for emotional reasons. It can be too difficult for us to give up that idea—and all of us, each and every one of us, are prone to this.

For as long as I can remember, there have been No Smoking areas in restaurants even here in North Carolina, the heart of tobacco country. For decades, the market has been responding to the demand for a smoke-free eating environment. People who do not wish to put up with cigarette smoke can find a restaurant that does not allow smoking, or that has a No Smoking area with adequate ventilation. If a restaurant doesn’t have this, then one can simply refuse to eat there—and, more helpfully, let the management know why. This is driving the trend of more and more nonsmoking establishments.

Unfortunately, some people aren’t reading it that way. They look at it as a confirmation that people want a smoking ban. In fact, it shows no such thing. It does show, very nicely, how responsive the free market is to the needs and wishes of the people, far more so than government ever could be, and that the need for a government ban on smoking is nonexistent.

When someone opens a business, they put at risk a considerable amount of money and time, and even their livelihoods. In particular, restaurants are a very risky enterprise. And yet, it is people who have no stake in the profitability of the restaurant who are proposing to force a smoking ban on it, when they can simply go elsewhere. It is the restaurant owner who now has an even greater risk to his livelihood imposed upon him.

It’s easy to advocate someone else’s freedom when it’s something we can admire. It’s not so easy when it’s something that’s a stupid idea and a detriment to their health. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

Yes, our lungs need to breathe free. But, as Henry Ward Beecher observed, so do our souls.

This article was published in the Lincoln Times-News on 5/4/2007.

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