Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

First No Guns...Now No Smoking  | e-mail post

I wrote a few days back about Minnesota's concealed weapons permitting law being in a state of flux. Well, now its going to get a lot tougher to smoke in Minneapolis as well, thanks to the city council's passage of a smoking ban ordinance [PDF Link] this week. [Star-Tribune] [Business Journal]. The council voted 12-1 in favor of it with Barrett Lane, the council's only political Independent, casting the sole opposition vote.

Of course, there was some attempt at compromise, as you can read about the Star-Tribune article. Two amendments were proposed to exempt establishments for which liquor sales accounted for 50% or 70% of revenue. Seems reasonable, but of course they were shot down.

I loved the line from the Council President, Paul Ostrow, "There are a lot of things that are great for the public health and bad for democracy, and this is one of them. Banning Big Macs is good for health, but we're not going to do that." God knows, we can't be banning Big Macs, even though obesity is estimated to account for $75 billion in additional healthcare costs this year, according to CDC researchers [Obesity Research abstract]. The RAND Corporation has identified obesity as a bigger problem than smoking.1

[RAND has some great information on the impact of the obesity epidemic.]

But this isn't a rant about the obesity epidemic, because, in all fairness, a smoking ban is fundamentally about the exposure of non-smoking employees (and patrons as well) to second hand smoke. I imagine there are already laws that protect me from being force fed a Big Mac if I walk into a McDonalds. Smoking bans are about protecting non-smokers, not protecting smokers from themselves. (Although maybe they should be, according to this research from the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

I have certainly spent enough time in California to know that smoking bans are not the end of the world. It certainly curtailed my smoking when I was out in the Bay area constantly in the late '90s, but didn't seem to when I was in LA a few weeks back. I found that Angelenos have adapted remarkably well to this with so much outdoor seating, in some cases even stretching the concept of "outdoor" into completely covered and enclosed areas. I thought it was fantastic, dining outside is always a pleasure, and they certainly have the weather for it.

But this is Minnesota. It is cold here. Very cold. Much of the year. Then it is very hot for two months. And then it gets cold again, too cold for eating dinner in a three season porch with an awning for a roof.

As a smoker, I am not thrilled with the prospect of a smoking ban. There are already enough fine dining, and even fairly casual, establishments that prohibit smoking, or allow it only in their bars. Restaurants that conveniently accomodate smokers get bonus consideration when I thinking of a place to eat. Just the other day I found another fairly casual independent restaurant in town that now doesn't even allow smoking in their (quite separate) bar.

While not happy about the inconvenience, and while I do feel somewhat crushed by the tyranny of the majority (and especially crushed by the obese members of it. ;-> ), I do recognize, in a limited way, the validity of the basic position driving adoption of these bans: secondhand smoke is harmful, and employees at many hospitality establishments are exposed to a great deal of secondhand smoke. (I do find the fact that while smoking bans are frequently positioned as a "workplace safety" issue, I rarely see restaurant employees supporting smoking bans, although it could be argued that they are silent in their support because their employers (bars and restaurants) are typically opposed to smoking bans due to a feared economic impact.)

However, individuals don't have to work in any particular place. Employees are not enslaved. In many respects, I find the idea that employers must accomodate workers in every shape and fashion quite ridiculous. While I personally, as an employer, try to accomodate and cater to the comfort and general happiness of my staff, I do so both because I like them and because I strongly value their unique skills and expertise and want them to work for me, and I know they could all work elsewhere if they really wanted to leave. At the same time, I run a consulting firm, not a restaurant. I know every employee I have is capable of performing the duties of a restaurant employee, while I am equally confident the converse is not true.

For that matter, if I simply wanted to have a very tiny consulting firm with only two or three employees, and I wanted to smoke at the office, I feel I should be entitled to have such a workplace. I wouldn't discriminate against hiring a non-smoker, but they would have to make the choice that they are comfortable working in a smoking environment, in the same way an employee at a restaurant could make that choice as well. There are non-smoking restaurants if one wants to be a waiter and work in a smoke-free environment.

While I could go on an on about this issue and the broader debate, I imagine there is little to be done to stem the tide of smoking bans, given the politically safe nature of such legislation and the fact that tobacco consumption is higher among the economic lower classes who lack political clout, however, I would feel a lot better about it, though, if it wasn't easier for someone to bring a gun into a restaurant than a cigarette.

1 Most studies on the aggregate social costs of smoking heavily load up with soft costs, ignore hard and soft savings from early smoker mortality (e.g. reduced social security payouts, less total time in the healthcare system, etc; and studies even acknowledge that medical cost estimates are driven by a higher level of smoking in the past.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  |  | Friday, July 23, 2004
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