In a column in the February 27, 2008 Wichita Eagle (“Smoking ban issue not one to negotiate”), columnist Mark McCormick quotes Charlie Claycomb, co-chair of Tobacco Free Wichita, as equating a smoking section in a restaurant with “a urinating section in a swimming pool.”
This is a ridiculous comparison. A person can’t tell upon entering a swimming pool if someone has urinated in it. But people can easily tell upon entering a restaurant or bar if people are smoking.
Besides this, Mr. McCormick’s article seeks to explain how markets aren’t able to solve the smoking problem, and that there is no negotiating room, no middle ground. There must be a smoking ban, he concludes.
As way of argument, McCormick claims, I think, that restaurants prepare food in sanitary kitchens only because of government regulation, not because of markets. We see, however, that food is still being prepared in unsanitary kitchens, and food recalls, even in meat processing plants where government inspectors are present every day, still manage to happen. So government regulation itself is not a failsafe measure.
Markets — that is, consumers — do exert powerful forces on businesses. If a restaurant like McDonald’s serves food that makes people ill, which do you think the restaurant management fears most: a government fine, or the negative publicity? Even small local restaurants live and die by word of mouth. Those that serve poor quality food or food that makes people ill will suffer losses, not as much from government regulation as from the workings of markets.
But I will grant that Mr. McCormick does have a small point here. Just by looking at food, you probably can’t tell if it’s going to make you ill to eat it. Someone’s probably going to need to get sick before the word gets out. But you easily can tell if someone’s smoking in the bar or restaurant you just entered. Or, if people are smoking but you can’t detect it, I would image that the danger to health from breathing secondhand smoke is either nonexistent or very small.
The problem with a smoking ban written into law rather than reliance on markets, is that everyone has to live by the same rules. Living by the same rules is good when the purpose is to keep people and their property safe from harm, as is the case with laws against theft and murder. But it’s different when we pass laws intended to keep people safe from harms that they themselves can easily avoid, just by staying out of those places where people are smoking. For the people who value being in the smoky place more than they dislike the negative effects of the smoke, they can make that decision.
This is not a middle-ground position. It is a position that respects the individual. It lets each person have what they individually prefer, rather than having a majority — no matter how lop-sided — make the same decision for everyone. Especially when that decision, as Mr. Claycomb stated in another Wichita Eagle article, will “tick off everybody.” Who benefits from a law that does that?
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