Smoking ban clouds freedom of choice

In the war against smoking, tobacco control advocates won another major battle this week in California. That state enacted a new law, which took effect on Jan. 1, prohibiting most bars and casinos from allowing their patrons to smoke. Lawmakers acted, they said, to protect the health of bar employees. Understandably, bar and casino owners object strongly to the ban on the grounds of business and enforcement. The law, they say, will hurt their businesses and will be widely violated anyway. But non-smokers are breathing easier — for now. Only time will tell how Californians respond to the ban. In Toronto last year, before a similar ban was overturned, many establishments found ways around the ban. Some added outdoor patios that were exempt from the indoor-air rules. Others created self-service rooms or fired employees, because without servers to protect the law did not apply. Faced with mounting losses, some Canadian restaurant owners openly disobeyed the law, refusing to enforce the ban even while facing hefty fines. Others put their businesses up for sale or closed their doors in protest. Waiters obeyed the letter — if not the spirit — of the law, reminding patrons just how sorry the management was that smoking is not allowed while serving ashtrays with the menus. Smokers also resisted the law, seizing non-smoking sections for themselves. After restaurant workers’ strong protest against the ordinance, the Toronto City Council backed down and voted to allow indoor smoking sections in restaurants and bars.According to a study by the American Journal of Public Health, banning smoking in bars is not bad for business. But the backlash in Toronto refutes this, and there’s no reason to believe the same kind of backlash won’t happen in California. In addition to smokers going elsewhere, business may also be hurt because many foreign tourists are not used to bans on smoking. It remains to be seen whether the loss of smoking customers will be replaced by non-smoking customers who stayed away from smoke-filled establishments. Meanwhile, reputable scientists and numerous reports by well-respected agencies from both sides of the smoking debate remain divided on the effects of second-hand smoke. However, regardless of the level of risk posed by second-hand smoke, anti-smokers are likely to dominate public opinion. Businesses need to find other ways of dealing with smoke, such as installing air purification systems or improving ventilation in other ways. More outdoor seating offers cleaner air and better ambiance. It should be up to bar owners to decide whether to allow smoking — and up to customers to decide which bars to frequent. If smoke-free bars can attract sufficient business to replace alienated smokers, then the free market will prevail more efficiently than unenforceable state laws. If, however, such regulations would only drive otherwise healthy establishments out of business, the smoking ban is not likely to stand. And nor should it; the lives of bar employees will not be improved by driving their employers out of business. It’s up to non-smokers to demand that the market satisfy their needs.