After strolling into my new workplace three weeks ago and meeting my co-workers for the first time, I quickly learned that one was a smoker. Luckily, my workplace was very accommodating to non-smokers like me. The building we were in looked like it had been specifically designed to keep smokers and non-smokers separate, with permanent overhangs outside the building where smokers lurked all day — overhangs far from the main entrances that the rest of us frequented.

But other workplaces in Michigan aren’t so accommodating to non-smokers. This is especially true for bars and restaurants. Employees there have no choice but to inhale the dangerous secondhand smoke permeating the establishment’s air day after day. To protect the health of these employees, the Michigan legislature has repeatedly tried over the past three years to pass a statewide ban on smoking in all indoor public places. But its efforts have always failed — and rightly so.

A statewide ban would infringe upon the rights of bar and restaurant owners and would be an unnecessary extension of government into the lives of private citizens. But in the past two months, a number of restaurants in Ann Arbor have decided to stop smokers at the door on their own. Their decision shows that bar and restaurant owners can make healthy decisions about smoking in their establishments — and that the state legislature should stop trying to take away their ability to do what they want with their own establishments.

Banning smoking in bars and restaurants statewide would be a draconian move, taking away the liberty of smokers — like my co-worker — even at the establishments that choose to welcome them. It would be an example of the state using the law to prevent bar and restaurant owners from making their own decisions regarding their own property. But many people believe that the state should take this liberty away from those owners.

It all comes down to choice. People choose to smoke, bar and restaurant owners choose to let them smoke on their premises and their restaurant employees choose to work there. All are free to do the opposite — smokers can quit, bar and restaurant owners can prevent smoking on their premises and their employees can seek jobs elsewhere.

But supporters of a statewide smoking ban point out that bar and restaurant employees often have no option but to face smoking in the workplace. If employees want to escape their smoky work environment, finding a new job in Michigan is nearly impossible. And bar and restaurants owners have typically been afraid to ban smoking in their establishments because they’re afraid they’ll lose customers to the place next door — the one that still welcomes smokers. Many bar and restaurant owners actually support a statewide smoking ban — that way they wouldn’t lose customers.

But a July 22 Ann Arbor News article listed three Ann Arbor restaurants that have decided this summer to ban smoking in their establishments — The Full Moon, The Earle and Arbor Brewing Company (Tired of waiting for legislature to act, Ann Arbor restaurants ban smoking in their establishments, 07/22/2009). The Earle did it as a result of Ann Arbor’s Restaurant Week. Arbor Brewing Company did it for the health of its employees.

These three Ann Arbor restaurants have shown that — contrary to popular belief — many restaurant owners’ desire to prevent smoking on their premises and are willing to do it without a statewide ban. In fact, according to the Ann Arbor News article, Arbor Brewing Company also banned smoking there because of the state’s inaction with a smoking ban. The restaurant was tired of waiting for the state to ensure that its competitors didn’t get its smoking patrons, so it risked its business in order to make the restaurant a healthy environment.

A smoking ban in Michigan would infringe upon owners’ rights to do what they please with their property. And the simple discussion of a statewide smoking ban is distracting bar and restaurant owners from stopping smoking in their establishments — keeping their employees in the very environment supporters of a statewide ban want to take them out of. The state should stop this fruitless discussion and let restaurant owners make their own decisions — decisions that are turning out to be in everyone’s interest.

Patrick Zabawa is the summer associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at pzabawa@umich.edu.

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