My grandpa—my father’s father—smoked cigarettes from the time he was about nine years old until he was into his sixties. I was five in 1995 when his doctor told him he had to quit or he’d likely die in a year or less.
He and my grandmother lived one house down from my parent’s home where I grew up. They were at every school concert and sporting event their grandkids had. I can count on one hand the number of basketball games my grandparents missed in the nearly 20 years I played. To say we were close would not do justice to the influence they had on my life. Grandma is still going strong today, in fact.
Grandpa did finally heed his doctor’s pleas and quit smoking cold turkey. I was 14 when he died nine years later of emphysema from decades of smoke and tar and tobacco pouring into his lungs. So yeah, I hate cigarettes. I would hate them even without the direct effect they’ve had on my life through the battle I witnessed my grandpa fight and to which, ultimately, he succumbed.
I hate the smell. I hate the smoke. I hate walking behind someone who’s smoking. I hate being in the same room as someone smoking. I hate the addictive quality of cigarettes and that smokers spend thousands and thousands of dollars on something so bad for them. I hate cigarettes, but I don’t think the government should ban them. I don’t even think the government should restrict their use. Not in the private sector, anyway.
It’s Not Government’s Job to Ban Everything Bad
This dichotomy is a difficult one for many people, even conservatives, to grasp properly. Just because a thing is good does not mean the government should promote it or actively incentivize its citizens toward it. Likewise, just because a thing is bad does not mean the government should restrict, ban, or tax the snot out of it.
Exercise is a great thing, but it’s laughable to suggest the government should legally require it. Why do we abandon that logic in the alternative?
Twenty-eight states have banned smoking in all “public” places—post offices, bars, restaurants, insurance agencies, hardware stores, florists, grocers, department of motor vehicles locations (DMVs), parks, sporting arenas, and basically everywhere but within the confines of privately-owned homes. Forty-four of the 60 most populated cities in the United States have banned smoking in restaurants and bars. Only 10 states have no restrictions on smoking.
This is ridiculous.
Let Private Individuals Make Their Own Choices
The government should have no say in the smoking rules of private businesses that consumers can voluntarily choose to patronize or not. It is not the government’s place to disallow private businesses from making their own decisions based on what market indicators tell them. If a business owner believes he can best persuade consumers to buy his product, be it dinner or lumber or car insurance, by enforcing a smokeless establishment, or by restricting it to certain designated areas, he will do so. If he thinks business will be best served by allowing his customers to smoke, he will do that instead.
The problem here may be at least partially definitional. That is, just what constitutes as a “public” place. The post office, DMV, and courthouse are public, yes. They are tax-dollar-supported and maintained. But the corner antique store, family-owned restaurant, and downtown bar are not. They are privately owned and operated. Yet when state legislators consider any non-home a public place, it makes it far too easy for them to get their overreaching paws into all sorts of areas in which they shouldn’t be.
This is how the free market works, when it’s allowed to work. Business make decisions based on what will attract the most customers. Customers reward that business’s decision, or they don’t. If Cracker Barrel chooses to allow smoking, I must determine whether eating there is worth it to me.
No Tax Money, No State Meddling
“You can no longer smoke in any bar in California,” complained comedian Larry the Cable Guy in a sketch a few years back. “It’s a bar. We aren’t going in there to talk about Jesus and eat celery sticks.”
This stands true as well for private college campuses, many of which have already or are currently debating whether to create bylaws that eliminate the ability to smoke on school property. This is perfectly acceptable. Colleges operate as a business, and should make rules they believe will best lend itself to their customers: students and potential students. But it is not acceptable for states to make laws requiring private colleges and universities to ban smoking.
Legislation that prohibits smoking on public campuses, however, is fine. Illinois, for instance, recently legally barred students and faculty from smoking on the grounds of all state schools. If tax money is being used to fund it, then creating the healthiest atmosphere possible is the state’s prerogative. But when tax money is absent, so then should be the State.
If Politicians Can Ban Smoking, They Can Ban Anything
It is no more ludicrous to outlaw smoking in a private business than it would be to outlaw smoking outright. (Which, be assured, isn’t far down on many progressives’ to-do lists; the same progressives who try to ban plastic bags, pet goldfish, and large sodas.)
And why stop at smoking bans? Americans have many unhealthy habits. Obesity is an epidemic in our country, with one in five deaths being obesity-related each year. That number makes the 88,000 smoking-related deaths in the United States per year look downright paltry. Why not, then, legislative fatty foods out of our lives? Soda, chocolate, fried…everything?
For one, because we are a free people endowed with the liberty to make our own choices, even ones that make bureaucrats upset with us. But secondly, because behavioral legislation has unintended consequences. When New York City banned smoking in restaurants and bars last decade, smokers partook in their habit outside on city sidewalks and streets, a much harder place for law enforcement to monitor effectively. This meant thousands of passersby were involuntarily subjected to cigarette and cigar smoke in their faces, rather than the few inside the restaurant who knew there would be smoke and chose to be there anyway.
The lesson, as always, is that no policy can be implemented in a vacuum. There will always be ripple effects, and seldom are they beneficial.
The consistent stance is this: the government can, and I’d argue should, ban smoking in public buildings, in public parks, and on public sidewalks; places that exist only because tax dollars paid for them to exist. Other than that, it should leave private business owners and private universities to make their own decisions, and consumers will make theirs.
“The free man owns himself,” wrote English theologian and philosopher G.K. Chesterton. “He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.”
Smoking is bad for you. But too much government may be worse.