The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

April 18, 2008

Smoke and consequences

One of my favorite immutable laws of life (phrase borrowed from Gregg Easterbrook, author and the Tuesday Morning Quarterback) is the Law of Unintended Consequences — the concept that, no matter how good something sounds, things may happen as a result that you never intended to happen.

The latest example of the Law of Unintended Consequences is the newly discovered link between, of all things, municipal smoking bans and increases in drunk driving. The Journal of Public Economics found that fatal drunk driving crashes increased between 2001 and 2005 in and near communities that enacted indoor smoking bans. The researchers concluded that people drove to find bars in communities that didn’t prohibit smoking, or to bars with outdoor smoking areas.

The only area of the U.S. where this phenomenon wasn’t found was in New England, where many communities have smoking bans (and which, the researchers didn’t note, is much more densely populated than most of the rest of the U.S.). One possible explanation is that drinkers who smoke have two things to do, whereas nonsmoking drinkers have just one.

UW–Milwaukee researcher Scott Adams noted that the way to eliminate the apparent smoking bandrunk driving link would be a “well-enforced national smoking ban,” which is a contradiction in terms, given that there are many states whose governments are less interested in turning into America’s Nannyland.

A related application comes in the report that the state expects to fall short of its cigarette tax revenue projections, despite increasing the cigarette tax from 77 cents per pack to $1.77 per pack. The president of the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association says convenience store cigarette sales have dropped up to 30 percent since the tax increase, with sales going instead to retailers outside the state lines, tribal-owned shops (which don’t assess state cigarette taxes), or the Internet.

The lesson about cigarette taxes is that, if you want to raise “sin taxes” with the idea of discouraging use of the products on which they’re applied, that’s an arguable position. (I would argue that such sin tax increases are back-door attempts at prohibition, and since the first time the U.S. tried prohibition, we’ve gotten to enjoy the effects of organized crime.) To expect, however, that you’re going to generate suitcases full of consequence-free tax revenue by increasing, for instance, cigarette taxes, is not true, as this proves. (But you already knew that from this National Taxpayers Union report previously quoted in this space.) The next major crime news story will be the increase in the tobacco black market, as states raise tobacco taxes to stratospheric levels, with related effects on crime rates.

There are few good arguments (but there may be some) for smoking; there are much better arguments for personal freedom. I have yet to come across a believable rationale (and a few anecdotal examples are not a reasonable rationale) that counters the argument of bar owners
, who certainly should be expected to know their business, that smoking bans are bad for their business. If there is a market for non-smoking bars, then there should be more non-smoking bars, by consumer choice, than by governmental fiat. (This site lists 22 non-smoking places in Marketplace’s 18-county circulation area; this list doesn’t include Fond du Lac, which bans smoking in restaurants.)

The same argument, incidentally, applies to employees of taverns and restaurants. Smoking ban advocates ran radio commercials while the Legislature was debating the statewide smoking ban from employees of bars who claimed illnesses up to cancer from exposure to the secondhand smoke in their workplaces (even though the evidence that secondhand smoke causes lasting health effects is shaky). I asked John R. Lott, Jr., author of Freedomnomics, about the employee secondhand smoke argument, and he replied:
My answer is that the argument for workers is exactly the same as it is for customers. If employees are asked to work in less desirable place, you will have to pay them more to get them to do it. Firms compete for workers on the basis of salary and other dimensions, such as work place quality. Firms have to see how much they have to pay these workers to work in a smoke filled room and how much smoking customers are willing to pay for that service. If the cost of the workers is less than what the customers are willing to pay, some restaurants will offer smoking.
That, of course, is an entirely inadequate answer for the anti-smoking forces, who, as Don Watkins observed in the Santa Monica (Calif.) Daily Press, seem to have other motives in mind:
Implicit in the war on smoking, however, is the view that the government must dictate the individual’s decisions with regard to smoking, because he is incapable of making them rationally. To the extent the anti-smoking movement succeeds in wielding the power of government coercion to impose on Americans its blanket opposition to smoking, it is entrenching paternalism: the view that individuals are incompetent to run their own lives, and thus require a nanny-state to control every aspect of those lives.
Those forces are, so far, getting away with it because American attitudes are increasingly opposed to smoking and smokers. That’s fine, but there’s less distance than you might think from opposition to smoking to opposition to alcohol, or foods perceived as unhealthy, or whatever other cause the Lifestyle Police might take up next. (For instance: New York City requires chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards; the federal judge who upheld the regulation sided with the city, whose bureaucrats believe New Yorkers are too fat, over the First Amendment. This analysis suggests that average New Yorker weight started increasing around the time of New York City’s bar and restaurant smoking ban in 2003, something most people who have quit smoking can understand.)

Moreover, anti-smoking forces apparently are not able to resist the temptation of exaggerating their case. Dr. Michael Siegel, described as “
a physician with 21 years of experience in tobacco control who recently became disillusioned by the direction in which the anti-smoking movement is going,” created the Center for Public Accountability in Tobacco Control because of such inaccuracies as the assertion that secondhand smoke causes atherosclerosis, a disease that takes 20 years or more to develop in regular smokers. Siegel also finds the assertion that people who smoke in the presence of children are committing child abuse to be a dubious argument, not to mention legally untenable. As Siegel puts it:
To anti-smoking advocates, there is no middle ground. By virtue of who we are, and by virtue of who the tobacco companies are, everything we say must be correct and everything they or their allies say must be wrong. To align oneself with a position that runs counter to the anti-smoking one, no matter how extreme, is tantamount to working for the tobacco industry. It automatically makes you a tobacco stooge, or at least a tobacco sympathizer. You have officially and irredeemably crossed over to the “dark side.”
Siegel also points out that this ends-justifies-the-means attitude toward truth and accuracy actually hurts the anti-smoking argument:
What good is all the research that I’ve conducted on the actual hazards of secondhand smoke when anti-smoking groups are going to tell the public that a few whiffs of tobacco smoke can cause atherosclerosis? What value is there in my research when these groups are going to tell the public that brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes as much damage to the heart as years of active smoking?

What exactly is the purpose of conducting careful scientific research on the effects of secondhand smoke if anti-smoking groups are essentially just going to make things up, making whatever claims they want to the public in order to embellish the emotional appeal of the message?
Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna got criticism from a former Appleton alderman for casting the deciding vote against an indoor smoking ban in Appleton in 2004, and then for appearing as an advocate of the proposed statewide smoking ban earlier this year. (Politicians never work both sides of an issue, right?) I wasn’t at Marketplace at the time, but I think the smoking ban issue worked perfectly and understandably in Appleton:
  1. Hanna’s 2004 vote killed the proposed indoor smoking ban, which was his right to do as mayor.
  2. Appleton voters then overwhelmingly approved the indoor smoking ban in a 2005 referendum, which was their right to do as citizens.
  3. Now Hanna wants to extend the ban statewide so that Appleton isn’t subject to the downsides of the ban, including, according to the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the closing of eight bars or restaurants in Appleton since the ban took effect. (You can decide how many of those closings were based, and to what extent, on Appleton’s smoking ban.)
I’m not sure if smoking ban proponents are so blinded by their hatred of the demon leaf (which would explain this list that backs up this incredible-sounding assertion, “Smoking bans are killing people”), or are so lovingly overflowing with their desire to turn smokers from the path of their own inhaled destruction, or are the resurgence of the 19th-century Clean Living Movement, or what. The more one delves into the anti-smoking movement, the more doubts about their motives grow, like ashes on the end of a lit cigarette.

I’m not going to argue that smokers are the victims of discrimination. (For one thing, I’m skeptical that an attitude based on behavior constitutes discrimination.) I don’t smoke (one Cuban cigar celebrating a Packers Super Bowl berth does not constitute starting smoking), although I have relatives and friends who do, and I have relatives who have died from smoking-related health problems. Since the Surgeon General’s report on smoking in 1964, no one really has an excuse for being ignorant about smoking's effects.

That, however, doesn’t excuse yet another attack on our liberties — in this case, the ability of business owners to decide for themselves (or, that is, to have their customers and employees decide for them) whether or not to allow smoking in their businesses — regardless of the motivations. We are supposed to be a nation of laws, not emotions, and laws based on feelings instead of our constitutional rights will inevitably be bad laws.

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