Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Inevitable Smoking Ban

by Ian Hoppe

Photo by Mark J Sebastian
Initially, when I conceived of this piece, it came to me as a knee-jerk response to the (somewhat) self righteous pandering of those involved in, or peripheral to, the anti-smoking campaign in the Birmingham area and Alabama at large. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a smoker. Not an incredibly heavy smoker, but I spend a lot of time at Birmingham bars and night clubs and smoke much more heavily when I am partaking in the drink. Hence I am one of those people at whom an attack of this kind is leveled. So, as is the case with most smokers, I was immediately defensive. My hard-line libertarian streak began swinging around wildly, calling up those arguments that one might see in a chain e-mail sent from some reactionary friend or family member decrying the ‘Nanny State’ and paternalism ruining businesses across the country.

But then I took a deep breath and decided to look at this issue with the most objectivity I could muster.

First things first, read the proposed ban. The bill up for consideration at the moment is HB149 and is what British folk might call ‘The Full Monty.’ This bill, in its current form, wants to completely outlaw smoking in and around bars, restaurants, and night clubs. For clarification, the term “smoking” in this context is entirely inclusive and includes not just cigarettes but pipes, cigars, cigarillos, bongs, hookahs, and even those newfangled electric cigarettes.

I should also mention that there is no provision allowing smoking on patios or outside of establishments. The bill even goes so far as to say that ashtrays or other smoking receptacles must be removed from all areas.

I get the feeling that the strategy here is to go for the whole enchilada (I like colloquialisms . . . and enchiladas) with the expectation of rolling back some provisions during the legislative process. However, I think that it is safe to say that a bill of this kind would negatively affect businesses to which it applies. I talked to a local smoky bar owner/operator who asked to remain nameless. He agreed with me that these provisions are extreme and would have a dramatic affect on his patrons, most of which come there to drink and smoke profusely. He did say, though, that he would be in complete support of a ban, if it allowed for smoking on a patio, was e-cigarette friendly, and made exemptions for cigar/hookah bars, tobacco shops, and other establishments whose primary function is smoking things.

This seems like a legitimate stance to me. But it takes the argument in a completely different direction. If we allow smoke shops to remain open and for people to smoke inside of them as well as lighting up on the patio of a restaurant, then the implicit statement goes from, “Smoking is bad for everyone, and you ought not do it” to the much more reasonable, “Smokers are not allowed to negatively affect those around them.”

If this second statement is what we can agree on, that smoking is fine but that smoking ought not to affect involuntary non-smokers in a negative manner. Then I would like to ask smoking ban supporters what they think about the following proposition. Tax breaks for bars and night clubs that prohibit smoking altogether, and tax credits for smoking bars to have effective smoking ventilation professionally installed. This would simultaneously give owners incentive to go non-smoking and clean the air for patrons and bartenders alike. There would be no change in the flow of business; contentedness of everyone involved would only increase, and my libertarian streak would be satisfied.

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