Questions of the government’s right to interfere with the affairs of private businesses are typically contentious. Michigan’s smoking ban, the Dr. Ron Davis Smoke-Free Air Law, is no exception to this rule. This ban, which prohibits smoking indoors in all public places and eateries, with an exemption for casinos and specialty smoke-shops, went into effect on May 1 of this year.
Those opposed to the ban either consider it an infringement on the rights of business owners or think that it generates a negative economic effect. Those in favor of the ban argue that it yields a net positive effect on the economy or that the effects of second-hand smoke are sufficiently harmful as to justify the ban.
Neither side makes a particularly compelling case, relative our other option, which is to sell smoking licenses. Allowing businesses to buy smoking licenses, under certain restrictions, would both generate much needed revenue for the state and curb second-hand smoke. The sale of smoking permits represents an ideological and economic compromise.
Those who make a case either for or against the ban citing supposed economic outcomes do so without strong quantitative or anecdotal evidence. Which is to say that it’s not obvious what the ban is really doing for businesses, for better or worse. There’s virtually no data that support any macroeconomic conclusions about the ban. Even anecdotes about its supposed effects go both ways.
A Detroit Free Press article from Aug. 19 cites the case of the Perfect Pitcher Sports Pub. The article says that the seven-waitress workforce has diminished to one or two. The owner, Natalie Samu, claims that business “‘is down by over 50%.'” On the other side of the argument, Steve Seng, a restaurant owner quoted by The Muskegon Chronicle, says business is, on the whole, up, despite a diminished nighttime patronage. But neither of these stories, as thought provoking as they might be, allows anyone to draw any meaningful conclusions. In fact, the name of the article that cites Seng is called, “Snuffing out business? One month into smoking ban, Muskegon-area bar and restaurant owners report mixed results.”
I don’t agree with a wholly libertarian conception of government, but I’m also uncomfortable with a certain degree of government social controls. Of all the products for personal consumption one might ban, cigarettes are a fairly sensible option. Smoking yields a ton of negative effects, and on an admittedly visceral level, sticking it to the cigarette companies, which engage in many ethically questionable practices, seems particularly appealing. But emotion is a bad basis for good public policy, and this degree of restriction is a level of government reach that I can’t in good faith endorse, especially when we can negate some of the effects and improve the state’s financial health by pursuing a different solution.
The consequences of second-hand smoke are extremely serious and I don’t take them lightly. Permits should be of appropriate expense. There’s room here for flexible policy. Permits might be issued only to businesses that properly designate and isolate their smoking sections. Or perhaps the permits would be issued in a way that limits smoking to late night, or only in bars that allow for smoking in the entire place.
There’s plenty of room for discussion of this matter. We can even arrive, rigorously, at the appropriate price to set for these permits. We can determine whether or not to add time-restrictions to them. We have better choices than a ban, speaking both ideologically and economically, and we ought to pursue them.
Jordan Birholtz is an LSA sophomore.