Smoking ban unfair, insulting

[This article was originally published in the Detroit Free-Press on May 15, 2008.]

When I head to the Upper Peninsula every summer, one of my favorite activities is relaxing outside with a cigar on a beautiful Michigan night. I’m lucky I don’t visit in the winter. Now that the state Senate has passed a bill to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, Michigan smokers may soon find themselves out in the cold.

The ban is touted as a way to rescue bar and restaurant workers from the much-hyped perils of secondhand smoke. But before approving such legislation, it’s worth asking whether these workers really need protecting. Often working as a bartender, I find it a bit disconcerting to see my profession become the object of such concern in so many states and cities. Firefighters, fishermen, coal miners, and even pizza delivery drivers take on far greater dangers than I ever have serving drinks.

Dangerous occupations are often regulated by the government to protect workers. But the risks of secondhand smoke are neither hidden nor so excessive as to warrant a ban. Given the rapid rates of employee turnover in the hospitality industry and the array of smoke-free job options in bars and restaurants, people are capable of deciding for themselves whether to work in a smoky environment. Business owners who try to force undesirable conditions on their employees will find themselves losing staff and having to pay higher wages.

Government interference is unnecessary and, frankly, insulting to many of us who labor in the industry.

Ban proponents disingenuously compare smoking laws to benign regulations such as keeping rats out of the kitchen, making the staff wash their hands and keeping meat refrigerated. They’re missing an obvious point: There are not, so far as I know, groups of oppressed consumers demanding restaurants where the cooks have dirty hands and the meat is rotten. People do demand places where they can smoke and drink together.

In addition, what goes on in the kitchen is difficult for diners to discover from the outside, while smoking policies are easily ascertained. So long as entrepreneurs, customers and employees gather in such places willingly, there’s no justification for the government stepping in to prevent them.

Supporters of these bans may be sincere about protecting workers. I suspect, however, that for many of them, the public health argument is a feel-good excuse for imposing their preferences on the rest of society.

The fight that ensued over this issue in Washington is a telling example. Before our ban was passed, City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz introduced a compromise that would have provided tax breaks to smoke-free businesses, increased fees for those that allow smoking and required smoke-friendly establishments to install expensive ventilation systems.

If the council’s goal had truly been to provide workers with more options, the Schwartz proposal would have done that. But predictably, her sensible compromise was roundly ignored in favor of a citywide ban. The lawmakers in Lansing are taking a similarly excessive approach.

The good news for nonsmoking Michiganders is that business owners are already curtailing smoking in response to consumer preferences, just as they were in Washington before our ban took effect. A glance at the Web site of Michigan Citizens for Smokefree Air reveals 3,500 restaurants in Michigan are smoke-free. As tolerance for tobacco smoke continues to wane, more and more managers will see the benefits of joining them.

Nonsmokers have good reason to desire smoke-free bars and restaurants. Tobacco smoke is smelly and annoying. Or is it aromatic and enjoyable? The difference is a matter of taste. Smokers ought to have places that cater to their preferences, just as nonsmokers do. Michigan should resist the urge to join California, the District of Columbia and countless other states and cities in the panic over tobacco.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the government should take steps to discourage indoor smoking, but a complete ban would go far beyond legitimate health concerns to violate the freedom of business owners, workers and customers throughout the state.

JACOB GRIER, 25, is a writer and researcher in Washington who has relatives in the Upper Peninsula and spends his summer vacations in Michigan. He writes a weblog at www.jacobgrier.com and can be reached by e-mail at feedback@jacobgrier.com.