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  • Light Up or Snuff Out Should Bars Decide?
  • By: Michael Theil
    • Posted on: 12/07/2011
    • The environment inside bars has changed dramatically, in one sense, over the past decade or so. As of July 2011, 27 states have passed legislation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants in some capacity. This has led to numerous debates and conflict as to the rights of government regulation over private property owners.
      For instance, in August of this year, over 500 bar and restaurant owners in Michigan collectively responded to a recent smoking ban that took effect in May of 2010 by banning legislators from patronizing their establishments. There is even a newly formed group called “Protect Private Property Rights in Michigan” ( that has been established to fight against the ban.   Time will only tell if politicians’ propensity for alcohol will affect their legislative sway on Michigan law.
      This backlash has been prevalent throughout the country where smoking bans have been enacted, especially with regard to its impact on business revenue. Numerous studies have been conducted over the past decade to determine the effects of smoking bans on business. However, the results have hardly been conclusive.   Some studies, including a 2006 review by the Surgeon General, concluded that not only was business revenue unaffected, but that many restaurants and bars may have actually received an increase in business.   Then there are the other widespread accounts of a spike in bar and restaurant closings in the short-term aftermath of smoking ban legislation.   The former argument could also be compromised partially by the fact that many business owners have increased prices to offset some of the loss in overall customers.
      Many of these studies depend on how they are being conducted. For instance, a 2004 study in NYC by the city’s Department of Health concluded a six-fold decrease in indoor pollution and an increase in liquor licenses, jobs, and tax revenue. Opponents argued that the study did not properly distinguish between bars and restaurants where the former, they argue, experienced a much more negative result in terms of business revenue.   Of course, NYC is hardly a good test bed for smoking bans in general. Public parks, beaches, and pedestrian plazas have also fallen under the city government’s smoking ban law. The pedestrian plazas being a most ironic choice considering that many reside just a few feet away from the constant noxious fumes of city traffic. Furthermore, the backhanded regulation of dramatic increases in cigarette taxes have pushed many prices up to around $11 pack which has contributed to a growing black market for cigarettes. 
      While the economic effects of smoking bans can be debated, the motive behind the bans is widely accepted – the health consequences of second hand smoke in establishments with public accommodations. There is no doubt to the significant health risks that cigarette smoking poses, both to the individual smoker and those affected through second hand. Proponents would argue that the health benefits of the ban, especially to those who do not smoke, are reason enough for government to enact such legislation. However, as in most cases with government regulation, unintended consequences tend to arise.
      First, the problem with many smoking bans in the US today is that they are not uniform within each state, where many exemptions are granted. Common exemptions include tobacconists, cigar bars, casinos, private clubs, and small workplaces. Besides being an unfair competitive disadvantage to those venues which do not fall under that criteria, such exemptions only seem to shift the market rather than provide a viable public health solution.
      Second, there is also the competitive advantage of those with significant political influence to effect legislation. NJ casinos contribute a significant amount of tax revenue to the state every year. In return, they are gifted with less strict legislation. Stand alone bars and restaurants in the area have to compete by either lowering costs and overhead or raising prices. If the smoking ban is intended to reduce the negative health consequences of establishments with public accommodations, then why would this not be equally attributed to all private owners with a liquor license?
      Third, smokers will smoke. So, naturally it just depends on where. Banning it indoors moves more people to hang around outside on patios, decks, or sidewalks, which increases litter and pollution of another kind – noise. Bars and restaurants among residential areas introduce the negative consequence of increased noise onto surrounding neighbors. So in some ways venues have simply foisted the smoking problem onto others.
      Fourth, the move toward smoking outdoors has led to a surge in the demand for open-air patio heaters to accommodate patrons. Considering that they are not insulated and release heat into the open air, they are considered by some to be a superfluous device that creates increased CO2 emissions and environmental damage. While in the grand scheme of things this increase in emissions can be seen as negligible, and while I would agree, environmentalists would beg to differ. For those with more sensitive concerns regarding pollution, it simply creates an additional pollutant that would have otherwise not been necessary if smokers were shifted back indoors.
      Fifth, alternative methods for accommodating non-smoking patrons could be considered instead of outright bans. Tax credits could be awarded for installing better ventilation systems or other similar types of accommodation that reduce the overall impact of smoking. Similar incentives could also be used to reward those establishments that voluntarily choose to ban smoking and enforced through proper registration and random checks.
      Finally, and perhaps the most important case against the ban, is the infringement on the rights of private property owners. Business owners of bars or restaurants, in their quest to maximize profit, are guided by decisions that seek to meet customer demand. Just as it is the right of the business owner to operate their business as they see fit, it is the right of any individual to choose which establishment they wish to spend their money. This voluntary agreement is compromised by the intentions of government legislators setting arbitrary standards to which the business owner must comply. Why should this apply to smoking? Approximately 20% of adults smoke cigarettes, leaving an overwhelming majority who do not. Of the remaining 80%, there are sure to be a significant amount of people who would express their freedom of choice to not eat or drink at establishments that cater to smokers. Wouldn’t business owners have to respond to that demand? And in that response, would it not naturally lend to business owners accommodating that demand through either a voluntary smoking ban or providing adequate accommodations to placate non-smokers? Leaving such decisions to the marketplace through voluntary decision-making would naturally sort this out. Thus, while the overall costs and benefits of those businesses that come under the ban can be debated, the greater issue is how these decisions should be made – voluntarily or through government coercion. The former will naturally reflect the freedom of choice of both customers and business owners, while the latter will abdicate that right to the arbitrary intentions of the few.   Even as one who prefers a smoke-free environment, I would much rather entrust the voluntary decisions brought about in the marketplace rather than leaving the solution to bureaucratic caretakers.
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