Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Virginia Senate votes for tobacco ban; what of right to choose?

That was unexpected: the Virginia Senate voted yesterday to ban smoking in restaurants and most other public places (The Washington Post). The Post indicated that passage in the House of Delegates was much less likely.

The three basic arguments against imposing smoking bans are:

  1. Smokers will stay away or leave sooner, reducing revenue.
  2. Smoking is a legal activity, so banning people from engaging in it is unreasonable.
  3. It's an infringement on the rights of business owners, employees, and customers to make their own choices.

I have some sympathy for the first argument. The impact of legislation on business profits is a legitimate consideration to be weighed against the other ramifications. In this case, it's my understanding, and the Post concurs, that studies are finding no substantive detriment to profits after all. After all, many non-smokers avoid bars and other establishments, or spend less time in them than they otherwise might, precisely because of the noxious fumes. Many of these people find themselves more inclined to patronize these businesses and to stay longer once the smoke has disappeared. I don't know how thorough or reliable the studies to date have been, but business owners who contest proposed bans out of fear of financial harm don't seem to appreciate the possibility that they are belaboring a moot point, against their own interests.

The other two arguments were voiced by Senator Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), who represents tobacco growers in the state:

We're talking about a legal product that's licensed and sold in Virginia—that's taxed and taxed and taxed. Now we're saying we know better than people who operate their own businesses what they can do.

Cars, of course, are legal products, taxed and taxed and taxed, but you aren't allowed to use one to tear through your neighbor's front yard or crash through his plate glass door. The legality of a product doesn't confer unimpeded freedom to use it as one may wish.

As for the right of choice—the right of owners to choose the environment they want to provide, the right of employees to decide whether they want to work in a particular establishment, and the right of customers to patronize a business or not—I have some sympathy, but not enough, because the new driving force behind smoking bans is the realization that it is a public health issue, not just a nuisance. We could trash the health code and let the customers decide whether to eat in a restaurant with a dead water heater that holds egg salad and raw shrimp unrefrigerated for hours in porous containers and allows vermin to proliferate in the kitchen. We could let banquet halls pack three times as many people into an enclosed space with a single exit than could possibly escape safely in case of a fire. How many of those who oppose a smoking ban on the grounds of choice would like to see these other forms of regulation go away?

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