Why Statewide Smoking Bans Are Wrong

Both Wisconsin and Louisiana currently have legislation proposing statewide smoking bans up for consideration this legislative session.  Wisconsin's version focuses on places of employment. That's unfortunate - especially the fact that Wisconsin's ban is "on the fast track," heading toward Jim Doyle's desk.

Why are statewide smoking bans a bad idea?

Recently, a friend of mine who is against smoking bans asked me, with a bit of resignation, if it wouldn't be best for business to have a statewide smoking ban at this point on the theory that it would at least be uniform.  In Wisconsin, for example, a patchwork of localized bans (like the one I saw come into effect in Madison) mean that business at bars, among other establishments, flees to islands where smoking is still permitted.

Here's what I sent in response, laying out my thoughts on smoking bans (and while a compromise version emerged in Wisconsin yesterday, this is still relevant in outlining why a ban is a bad intellectual/philosophical starting point for addressing smoking):

"I'd be in favor of a blanket no-ban-by-municipalities policy first and foremost. That leaves the decision to ban smoking to individual establishment owners/individual patrons - more grassroots liberty than even the seemingly desirable "local control" or home rule by cities. It's the most local of control.

If that's impossible, I'd actually prefer a patchwork. Businesses hurt by smoking bans in certain municipalities should be able to engage the political system when the harsh effects occur and use a political check on current leadership. Municipalities that see business flee for surrounding areas should get the hint if it affects them enough. And businesses, at the very least, could relocate a short geographic distance away, potentially, to continue with a current client base/personal connections. Under this model, not everyone gets liberty, but more people do.

The final step of a full-out blanket statewide ban does make things uniform, as you suggest, but no establishments get to make the decision about whether to permit smoking or not. There's no choice left to consumers either. And, as the current iteration of the ban suggests, it will likely be significantly overbroad, harming specific businesses like cigar bars where it's clearly foreseeable to both patrons and employees that smoking is entailed in the business/experience. To destroy the livelihoods and life choices of some people wholesale even though only consenting adults are "harming" themselves by way of a traditionally permitted activity in a given establishment seems highly unfortunate.

Going back to uniformity and certainty for business, I think the key consideration here is that business needs to push legislatively for uniformity - but uniformity in the sense that no community can make localized blanket bans. The decision needs to continue to rest with individual establishment proprietors and potential patrons. I understand that most business owners at this point will simply think, well, it's probably easiest, now that some local bans are in place, to ban it everywhere so everyone is harmed alike. But business owners as a whole needs to take a Voltaire-style stand collectively and say, for precedent's sake, that even if my individual business does not need or want smoking, my business needs to be able to make its own decisions to the extent possible, and if this passes, it does represent a little slip down the slippery slope toward reduced control for all of us over our own affairs."


Smoking ban proponents can argue all they want that there isn't sufficient evidence of harm to businesses as a result of bans.  To me, as demonstrated above, there's a lot more to smoking bans than mere economic concerns.  What is it really about in the end to someone like me - who does not even smoke?  It's about far more than the mere convenience of smelling nice when I return home from the bars.

It's about liberty.