A market test of smoking bans

One of the things I’ve often criticized about smoking bans is their methods of offering exemptions. When legislators let some businesses continue allowing smoking, the decision is usually based on things like percentage of tobacco revenues, demonstrated economic hardship, number of seats, and various other measures. The problem is that these measures are never perfect; there are always tobacco-centric businesses that for some reason don’t meet the guidelines (this has been especially true in Oregon).

The smarter way to offer exemptions — aside from keeping government out of the question entirely — is to simply let businesses pay to be exempt. Business owners who consider smoking essential to their operation will pay a price to let it continue, while those who consider it incidental will comply with the ban. There’s no bureaucratic wrangling, the number of smokefree options for customers and service industry workers will increase, and the revenues could be used to pay for health care.

Since the anti-smoking movement has become a moral crusade, modest ideas like that never get any traction. Yet it is being tried temporarily in Kansas City, where businesses can pay a $250 annual exemption fee through 2011. The result:

The business license department for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., said 50 of the 316 restaurant and bars in the city have bought exemptions.

That’s a strikingly low number, about 15% of the restaurants and bars in the city. That leaves 85% remaining for the non-smokers to patronize. Not a bad ratio, don’t you think? Perhaps by 2012 Kansas City residents will make these sensible exemptions permanent.

I’d also be curious to know how many restaurants and bars were smokefree before the ban. I’d expect that the free market was trending toward that ratio anyway and may have reached something close to it within a few years.

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4 thoughts on “A market test of smoking bans”

  1. You don’t say specifically, but it sounds like you are suggesting a flat fee for purchasing an exemption. It seems like that would tend to discourage new entrants into the market, and make the big players bigger. It would be, for instance, easier for a large nightclub to purchase an exemption than it would be for a small cigar shop. You could instead base the fee on the square footage of the establishment, or on the annual revenue of the business. Or you could have a complicated formula that takes into account the percentage of the business’s revenues that can be attributed to tobacco sales. But each of those systems would have its own problems.

    Also, $250 sounds absurdly low to me compared to what I’d expect cities to charge. If the same thing were tried in San Francisco, I’m guessing that number would be more like $10,000. If it isn’t just a nominal fee, concerns about certain businesses being unable to pay would be even worse.

    Of course, none of this means some sort of fee isn’t better than whatever nebulous exemption criteria is in place now.

  2. @Barzelay: Yeah, that’s my concern too. I wouldn’t want to see small tobacco shops put out of business just because they couldn’t meet whatever flat rate the city decides on. A sliding scale would be a way to address that issue. Another way would be to stay the fuck out of decisions about which businesses can allow smoking.

  3. Too many rights are already gone. Banning smoking in bars OR resturants is BS. Be an adult, chose where you want to spend your money. Smoking or not, that is YOUR choice. Quit telling property owners how to run their businesses.

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