Adam Briggle: Ban on smoking city’s only option

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I joined Denton’s citizen advisory committee on smoking regulations convinced that we needed stricter rules. I was prepared to counter the argument that this would be a significant infringement on the personal liberty of smokers.

I don’t think asking someone to step outside for a cigarette is all that burdensome.

And I have a hard time seeing smoking as a “personal” choice when someone else’s decision to light up has consequences for my lungs. We regularly prohibit people from harming others — what’s the hang-up in this case?

Well, I soon learned from our committee’s deliberations that this is less about smokers’ rights than about the rights of business owners.

The argument goes as follows. If some businesses want to cater to smokers, that should be their right. If others want to cater to non-smokers that, too, should be their right.

Consumers then choose which businesses to frequent. The market will determine the optimal allocation of smoky and smoke-free places.

This market solution has great appeal because of its emphasis on freedom. But I think it is flawed. 

Note first some noncontroversial limitations to this approach. Few would want to defend a business owner’s right to serve only white, heterosexual, or able-bodied patrons — even if such decisions would be profitable. 

I also take it to be noncontroversial that business owners should not have the right to determine their own building, fire, electrical and sanitation standards. Even if they could maximize profits by cutting corners on such measures, we generally don’t think they should have the option of doing so.

This would invite a brutal cost-benefit calculation.

Imagine a business owner weighing the benefit of skimping on fire safety against the risk of paying hospital bills and court settlements. Even if they think it is worth the risk, we don’t let them take it.

The fact that such rules are not subject to much debate tells me that we generally accept a regulated market.

Government requires businesses to provide some things for reasons of public health and safety (like sanitary kitchens and fire extinguishers) but leaves it up to businesses to decide about other things (like whether to serve Coke or Pepsi). The requirements establish the parameters within which preferences can be expressed and profits maximized. You don’t have to serve hamburgers, but if you do you must store and cook the meat properly. 

The question is whether we ought to think of smoke-free air as a requirement or a choice. Is catering to smokers and nonsmokers like catering to Coke and Pepsi drinkers?

This is what the market model presupposes.

But maybe it is more like allowing business owners to choose their own health and safety standards. I think the case for a smoking ban ultimately comes down to this. If we believe the dangers of secondhand smoke are similar to the dangers posed by lax fire or sanitation practices, then we ought to regulate it.

Given that there is usually no feasible technical solution to allow smoking while eliminating the dangers of secondhand smoke, a ban is the only option.

How dangerous is secondhand smoke? The U.S. Surgeon General concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

The American Lung Association estimates that secondhand smoke kills 50,000 people per year and is especially dangerous for employees who must spend eight hours or more per day exposed at work.

The American Cancer Society classifies secondhand smoke as a known human carcinogen.

I know there is debate about these claims. But it is hard to find more credible sources of information when it comes to public health science. I also know the poison is in the dose and low-level exposures are not as bad as high-level exposures.

But this is hardly a comfort to employees, and even low-level exposure to the carcinogens in tobacco smoke presents a health risk.

So, is that level of risk worth classifying smoke-free air with other health and safety requirements? Reasonable people can disagree on this question.

But when I think about my own lungs and the lungs of my growing daughters, I am again convinced that we ought to strengthen our smoking ordinance.

It is most important to ban smoking anyplace where children are allowed. They are particularly vulnerable to the harmful impacts of secondhand smoke, and, unlike adults, they cannot give their informed consent to smoky air.

This is another limitation of the market model — not everyone is freely expressing their preferences.

Some claim that smoking bans are actually good for business. That may be so, but it is beside the point. We don’t implement health regulations only when they fatten the bottom line. This is an instance where we need to do what is right, especially for employees and children, even if it doesn’t boost the economy. 

ADAM BRIGGLE is a Faculty Fellow at the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity.

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