Are smoky bars and restaurants intolerable?

Posted: Dec 13, 2002 12:00 AM
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed that New York City ban smoking in all bars and restaurants, one of his aides made a revealing comment to The New York Times. He said: "The mayor will push this for all the same reasons he pushed the cigarette tax." In approving an unprecedented 1,800 percent hike in the city's cigarette tax, Bloomberg had emphasized that he wanted to deter smoking by making it prohibitively expensive. Likewise, the main point of his smoking ban, which the New York City Council is on the verge of passing, is to make the habit less convenient and less socially acceptable, thereby encouraging smokers to quit. Christine Quinn, who chairs the city council's health committee, confirmed this agenda last summer, when she imagined smoking bans covering lower New York state. "If someone is going to drive from Manhattan to Orange County (New Jersey) to have a cigarette," she told the Times, "then there is really not much we can do to help that person." Smokers, of course, did not ask for Quinn's "help," and they're not exactly grateful for it. Recognizing that naked paternalism has limited appeal, Bloomberg and his allies insist that workplace safety is their primary concern. According to City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, "The purpose here is not to punish smokers but to protect employees." But that goal is paternalistic too. The smoke banners are saying they will not allow anyone to enter into a contract for employment that involves exposure to secondhand smoke. As Miller put it, "No one should have to choose between their health and their job." When it comes to the dangers posed by secondhand smoke, anti-smoking activists and government officials have greatly exaggerated both the strength of the evidence and the level of risk involved. Epidemiological research suggests, for example, that living with a smoker for decades may slightly increase your risk of lung cancer, which for a nonsmoker is tiny either way. The increase is so small that it's hard to tell whether the effect is real. The evidence concerning secondhand smoke and heart disease is even more problematic. As University of Chicago biostatistician John C. Bailar and other critics have noted, the risk increase attributed to secondhand smoke, around 25 percent, is implausibly large. It is about one-third the risk increase associated with smoking itself, which involves exposure levels 100 to 1,000 times as high. Whatever the long-term hazards, many people prefer to avoid secondhand smoke because they hate the smell, it makes them uncomfortable, or it aggravates their respiratory problems. The question is whether these complaints, coupled with a possible increase in disease risk after many years of exposure, mean that no one should be allowed to accept a smoky working environment. Other things being equal, a bartender might prefer that his customers leave their cigarettes at home. But he might decide to put up with the smoke because drinkers stay longer and leave bigger tips when they're allowed to light up. A waitress might work in a restaurant that permits smoking because the job is close to home and offers good benefits. According to Michael Bloomberg, the government has a duty to stop people from making such tradeoffs. It's an odd judgment in a country where miners, fishermen, lumberjacks and boxers are still permitted to risk injury and death, judging for themselves whether the compensation they receive is adequate. Just as there is a demand for coal, fish, wood and prizefights, there is a demand for smoker-friendly bars and restaurants. To insist that no one be allowed to fill it is arbitrary and tyrannical. In a free society, there ought to be room for bars and restaurants that welcome smokers, staffed by employees who are willing to tolerate the smoke in exchange for higher pay, better tips or otherwise superior working conditions. By ruling out such voluntary arrangements, Bloomberg is forcibly imposing his one best way on a city famous for its diversity. This smoke-free fanaticism is spreading. Pioneered in California, comprehensive smoking bans are expected to be adopted soon in Boston and Chicago as well as New York. Bans have been proposed in many other jurisdictions as well, and it is probably just a matter of time before smoking in this country is legally confined to the home (assuming it is still permitted there). Personally, I won't miss the smoke, but I'll miss the freedom that made it possible.