Feature:Opinion

Cigar Hunter: Yes, grown-ups write these laws

Photo of David Martosko
David Martosko
Executive Editor

The University of Illinois is poised to ban tobacco campus-wide because it’s a dangerous health risk for students. No word on whether the school’s lucrative football team will disband because of the risk of concussion or broken bones.

Chico, California police will start enforcing a new law next month that bans smoking within 20 feet of any building. Any building at all. Not schools, or hospitals, or Whole Foods stores or gas stations. Any building. The city won’t penalize you, lawmakers say, if you’re just walking down the street and not standing still. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Toronto’s board of health will decide next week whether to ban smoking on outdoor restaurant patios. You know, where people who want to eat out go to smoke.

Montgomery County, Maryland is set to add tobacco smoke to the list of things that can trigger a nuisance lawsuit. “I’d like to get the smoking rate in Montgomery County to zero,” Democratic County Councilman George Leventhal said during Thursday’s meeting of the county’s Health and Human Services Committee. He’s in charge there.

All these stories came just from the past week.

Annoyed enough to take your case to court? Good luck. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 4 against a bar owner who thought the state’s smoking-ban law was unconstitutional. The court never reached that critical question, but threw his case out of court anyway.

Why? The smoking ban drove away so many of his customers that he had to close — rendering the whole legal action moot. “Defendant is now out of business,” the court ruled. “[A]ccordingly, enjoining the ban’s enforcement would not provide him any relief.”

So what to do? You could follow the example of an Omaha, Nebraska pool-hall owner or a host of Lexington, Kentucky strip clubs: Ignore the law, pay the fine.

I find it telling that so many of these smoking bans are passed into law for the stated reason that they will force people to quit on tobacco completely. Someone should explain that to the economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis who discovered in August that it doesn’t work.

“The correlations between smoking bans and the smoking behaviors examined are not quantitatively significant,” economists Michael T. Owyang and E. Katarina Vermann wrote. “In other words, the bans do not generally correlate with fewer people starting to smoke or continuing to smoke. They also do not generally correlate with more people attempting to quit smoking.”

The pair also determined that “enacting smoking prohibitions in indoor workplaces, bars, and restaurants does not appear to increase the likelihood that a current smoker will attempt to quit.”

And frankly, it’s not like fines from enforcing smoking bans are rivaling red-light cameras in terms of municipal revenue generation. So why do we have these bans in the first place?

Simple: They make someone in the public health community feel good. Just like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg feels good squashing that sneaking feeling that somewhere in the five boroughs, someone is enjoying a giant Big Gulp with salted popcorn.

Public health, remember, was invented to stop epidemics like polio, mumps and syphilis. With most of the 20th century’s big epidemiological killers — aside from AIDS, of course — on the ropes, an entire cottage industry of researchers and bureaucrats had to re-purpose themselves or risk obsolescence.

And now, with every push of their pencils, we’re watching the erosion of basic pleasures, drip by drip, puff by puff, month by month.

Don’t say no one warned you.

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