Merry Christmas, people of Michigan. This is your parents, the state government. We’ve decided that your New Year’s Resolution will be to quit smoking, and to that end, we present your Christmas present: a statewide smoking ban in all workplaces, minus a few pesky exemptions, like cigar bars and smoking specialty shops. And, oh yeah, Detroit’s three casinos. But all you smaller, more vulnerable establishments, well, you just have to kick the habit.
Don’t balk, dear readers, at this patronizing tone. Now that the smoking ban has Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s signature on it, the state has officially taken on the role of the morality police. And as lawmakers tread down the slippery slope of regulating public health, the biggest losers are private property and individual rights.
After years of fighting over which businesses to exempt, legislators finally passed a statewide workplace smoking ban that was signed into law by Granholm on Dec. 18. In a press release touting the bill’s final approval, the governor’s office repeated the misleading mantra of ban proponents, claiming the ban “will make Michigan the 38th state to ban smoking in public places.” But smoking is already prohibited in most public places in Michigan. And now it is private property owners that, for the first time, will be required to prohibit smoking.
This misconception stems from state policymakers’ gross misunderstanding of the definitions of the words “public” and “private.” Their view, it would seem, is that the private/public designation depends upon the function of the property, and if a building is open to the public it is a public place. But this is fundamentally flawed — private property is private property no matter what its owner uses it for or who is permitted to enter.
In fact, a private place is simply one that is owned by a private citizen, whereas a public place is one that is owned by some unit of government, be it local, state or federal. The terms have nothing to do with the number or type of people that inhabit a certain space. Nor does it matter what the space is being used for. A restaurant or bar is a private place in the same way that a house is a private place. Police buildings, courthouses, state parks, etc., are public places. It is ownership alone that determines whether property is public or private.
Because public property is government owned, the state may prohibit smoking in public places. Smoking is already prohibited in most public buildings — the University of Michigan, for example, banned smoking indoors years ago, and in July 2011, will extend the ban to include outdoor spaces as well. This extension of the ban is ill-advised for several reasons — foremost, perhaps, that the University administration should not require its students to make certain lifestyle choices — but at least University property is public space. The private property of Michigan’s restaurant and bar owners, on the other hand, is not public space, no matter how loudly (and incorrectly) Granholm and state legislators assert that it is.
Permitting the state government to dictate what sort of behavior is acceptable on privately-owned property is recklessly dangerous. Why not ban smoking in people’s homes as well? It is not only in the workplace that nonsmokers encounter secondhand smoke. While we’re at it, why should the smokers be allowed to suffer their bad habit? Certainly it follows logically that if a healthier public is the end goal, and the government has a right to intervene in individual behavior in both privately-owned space and publicly-owned space, smoking should simply be banned completely across the entire state.
And yet most people will recognize that this would be too far for the government to go — that the government has no right to require healthy behavior from its citizens. This is because some people would rather engage in an activity that they find pleasurable (like smoking) even if it’s bad for them. But permitting the government to ban smoking on private property is a bold step in undermining both the right and the ability to live one’s life the way he or she wants.
While proponents of a ban cling to numerous falsehoods, I’ll touch on just one more. It’s absurd to claim that restaurants and bars will benefit economically from the enactment of the smoking ban. If banning smoking was beneficial for an establishment, the establishment would prohibit smoking on its own, as many bars and restaurants across the state have already done. But that’s the owner’s call, not the government’s. After all, who understands the business better: the owner whose life and livelihood depend on it — who has likely spent years improving it and is inextricably linked to its success — or a bunch of Lansing bureaucrats?
I say this every time I write a column against smoking bans, but I’ll say it again: I am not a smoker. I’m not looking out for myself here. But an important principle is at stake here. With regard to private property and personal behavior, lawmakers should butt out.
Robert Soave is a former editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.