Scott Tibbs

City Council should not further restrict smoking

By Scott Tibbs, March 10, 2003

On March 26, the Bloomington City Council will take final action on a proposal to ban smoking in all "public places" within city limits. Anthony Pizzo (D, at-large) has been hoping to get such a ban passed for several years. He attempted to pass a similar proposal in 1999, but it failed 5-3, and an amended version failed 4-4, according to the Herald-Times.

Republican Jason Banach, who voted against the ordinance in 1999, has taken a public position against the ban, saying that he would vote against it again. Banach, however, did offer three amendments to the ordinance, exempting businesses where employees and patrons must be 18 years of age; exempting private offices; and delaying implementation of the ban to August 1, 2003. These are reasonable compromises, and should be considered by the City Council.

Few people dispute the fact that second-hand smoke is harmful. Paul Hager made a strong argument in a March 3 letter to the H-T that the connection between secondhand smoke and cancer is weak at best. But even discounting claims that secondhand smoke has a carcinogenic effect, there is a definite short-term negative impact on the health of people exposed to it. It can aggravate asthma, allergies, or a head cold, or cause eye irritation and nausea. The American Lung Association reports that secondhand smoke can cause "pneumonia, ear infections, bronchitis, coughing, wheezing and increased mucus production."

But these negative health effects do not justify a ban by the City Council on smoking in all "public places" in Bloomington. On the surface, the proposed ban meets the libertarian standard that government only prohibits activity that harms another person. But nobody is forced to go into a restaurant, bar, or other business that allows smoking. Patronizing a business where smoking is allowed is the personal choice of local consumers. Those consumers choose to subject themselves to secondhand smoke and whatever risks that may entail. Since this is the case, government involvement should be kept to a minimum.

True, some people may be unable to patronize a favored establishment due to the presence of secondhand smoke. But is it necessarily government's job to restrict the individual choices of others so that some citizens can have what they want? The free market provides an opportunity for these people to make a statement to local business about whether or not smoking should be allowed on the premises. The owner of one local restaurant, Lennie's, told the Herald-Times that she took a poll of her customers on whether Lennie's should allow smoking. After the results showed that the majority wanted a smoke-free environment, Lennie's banned smoking from the premises.

Other businesses should have the same choice. Nick's English Hut is a popular location on Kirkwood, and it allows smoking. It makes no sense that a bar like Nick's should not be allowed to have a smoking environment. Many people who go to a bar to drink also smoke, and taking smoking out of the equation could hurt many of those bars. As long as Indiana University students want to drink, some bars will continue to do well with or without a smoking ban. But others may be seriously hurt, and the City Council should not put those businesses at such a risk. If the smoking ban must be passed, Councilor Banach's amendment exempting such businesses should be approved.

Some would argue that the health risks to employees of a smoking establishment justify city action to protect them. But is this really the responsibility of government? The labor market exists to allow people to find other work, or choose not to accept a position in a smoking establishment. While it may be difficult for a worker in the service industry to find another job in a time of economic downturn, it is ultimately his or her choice to continue to hold that position. Even if smoking is truly a workplace hazard that needs to be regulated, it isn't city government's responsibility to police this. Instead, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Division is the proper body to address workplace safety for Hoosier employees.

I believe smoking is a terrible habit. It significantly damages the health of those who partake in it, and often winds up being a slow form of suicide. If I could wave my hand and make everyone choose to quit smoking, I would not hesitate to do so. But it is not my prerogative to force my preference on others. The City Council should take the same stance.