New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is trying to smoke out smoking in public places. On March 30, the New York City Smoke-Free Air Act will take effect. Passed at the end of 2002, the law bans smoking in all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, airports, private clubs, pool halls, catering halls, and even outside dining areas. In addition, outdoor ashtrays must be positioned “so that secondhand smoke emanating from such ashtrays will not ordinarily activate smoke detectors,” while movie theaters must “show upon the screen that smoking is prohibited within the premises.”
The ban, also known as Local Law 47, is the culmination of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign against the supposed devastating effects of second-hand smoke. Referring to it as the “most pressing public health issue facing New Yorkers,” Mayor Bloomberg has justified the smoking ban on two claims: first, that the ban is necessary to protect employees who previously had to work in hazardous conditions, and second, that it is the explicit responsibility of the government to protect its citizens from their own vices. Yet in championing these two causes, Bloomberg and supporters of the ban ultimately reveal only revulsion to smoking and an untenable vision of the government’s ability and responsibility to enact immediate changes to longstanding traditions in a culture.
A fact sheet published by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene emphasizes the benefits and innocuousness of a smoking ban, citing the continued economic success and growth of Californian bars and restaurants, which have been “smokefree” since 1998. According to the fact sheet, “smokefree workplace laws have had either a neutral or positive effect on business.” It further attempts to gain acceptance of the law by attesting that “businesses with smoke-free policies experience less absenteeism,” have “lower housekeeping and maintenance costs” due to no longer needing to “clean ashtrays, sweep up cigarette butts,” and “replace burnt carpeting.” “Health insurance costs may decrease,” and employers “may also see lower liability insurance costs.” (Emphasis added)
The fact sheet, however, is riddled with economic falsehoods and gross misrepresentations. Take the issue of non-smoking establishments being profitable as an example. This phenomenon is a direct result of the fact that there are establishments that permit smoking. Hence, non-smoking establishments fill a market need and are thus able to provide something that other establishments do not. In other words, they benefit from the fact that people averse to others smoking near them will patronize their business rather than the one down the street because the one down the street permits smoking. When all businesses become non-smoking, such a market niche will cease to exist. In fact, this law might very well hurt establishments that are now non-smoking.
The fact sheet’s claim that bars and restaurants will have lower costs since they will need to decrease the amount of time spent to clean up is also highly dubious. First, it is unlikely that it costs a bar that much more to sweep up empty cigarette butts when it already needs to sweep the pretzels that fell on the floor. Culture There is already a sunk cost of having to sweep the floors and it would cost no more to also catch cigarette butts with a broom while one is cleaning the floor of peanuts and cocktail onions. Second, even if there was a lowered maintenance cost, it will be greatly outweighed by the lost revenue caused by the smoking ban. Bar and restaurant owners have already protested that the ban will decrease profits since frequenting bars will now be a nuisance for smokers.
Then why such a ban? One of the primary reasons for this ban is the deleterious effect of second- hand smoke. Leaving aside the issue of the credibility of the studies showing the harms of second-hand smoke aside, one can at least say that secondhand smoke is a nuisance. Yet, it is a nuisance that people ought be free to opt in and out of. If I do not like second-hand smoke, I can patronize a different bar or restaurant. If I do not mind it, there is no reason why I should not be able to go to a bar where people smoke. In fact, it seems that one of the primary things that people do at bars is smoke. There are many people who do not usually smoke, but when they go out with their friends and have a few beers, they like to light up a cigarette or a cigar. This is part of bar and pub culture and it seems this is one of the reasons people actually go to bars in the first place. Who goes to a bar expecting not to have second-hand smoke?
The second-hand smoke issue, however, extends far beyond customers. In fact, it probably has much to do with employees. Yet, just as customers, employees are free to choose where they work. If they prefer a smoke-free environment, they should probably not work at a bar. Many employees, actually do not mind working in an environment where people smoke and would in fact offer their services to such an establishment. Bloomberg’s ban would prevent these people from being able to offer the somewhat unique product of willingness to work in a smoking environment.
Another important reason, while not explicit, is to stigmatize smokers. This has already happened in California, where smokers huddle outside of bars and nightclubs when they want to light up. It is unclear, however, why smoking deserves this kind of stigmatization. To a great extent, smoking is a part of Western culture (and not just Western, mind you). Despite its critics, it may offer actual benefits to those who partake in it. While it does increase risk of heart attack, it decreases risk of stroke and Parkinson’s Disease, for example. On average, smoking takes 3-5 years off a person’s life. But some people – and many actually do – might decide that this trade-off is worth it if it means enjoying the taste and psychological effects of tobacco. Why should the government begrudge them that choice? Eating bacon for breakfast everyday also poses serious long-term health risks. Will New York City soon ban bacon at restaurants? The point is that various aspects of culture do pose health risks and shorten our lifespan. Yet, they are part of our culture because people have decided over many years of experimentation that these practices provide other benefits that outweigh the risks and their associated costs. Who are the public health nuts to stand athwart hundreds of years of tradition of smoking and eating bacon? Everyone has known for hundreds of years that smoking is bad for one’s health and people still chose to do it.
There is a significant harm done to us when the government attempts to overturn years of culture and tradition by fiat one bright morning. There is a certain relationship between people and the tradition they belong to. It is something personal and familiar with which they have formed connection. When this relationship is severed, even with such seemingly minor things as smoking, it diminishes this relationship, which is very important in helping people understand who they are. Banning smoking seems like a very minor thing, yet little by little, government tinkering is weakening the traditions and aspects of our culture we have held dear.
Such tinkering also does not bode well for government itself. It engenders distrust, spitefulness, and a greater willingness to break the law. People usually believe that their culture and the tradition they grew up in is a much more personal thing than their government. The prime example of this is the mafia, whose members feel a greater connection to the traditions and ways of the institution than to some abstract laws and faceless government officials. More laws, especially ones that effect day-today life to such a great extent as the smoking ban does, end up causing people to be more willing to break laws and undermines the authority and effectiveness of the laws themselves.
Obviously, when the culture is utterly wrong and egregious, government action is necessary. An example of this is slavery. It is highly dubious, however, that smoking is a case of this, since no one is forced to start smoking and no one is forced against his or her will to smell cigarette smoke. There is a high level of standard to be met to justify government intervention and Bloomberg has clearly failed to meet that standard for the reasons cited above.
Essentially, smoking is a victimless crime. Those who are victims – those who do not like second-hand smoke – can choose to stop being victims by patronizing non-smoking establishments. The market can and does solve the secondhand smoke problem already. Bloomberg’s new law attempts to overturn years of tradition and culture by governmental fiat. Besides being based on faulty principles and understandings of human behavior, it might very well help deteriorate his administration’s authority.
Casey Lee is a junior in Trumbull College.