Wednesday, September 22, 2004

COLUMN -- Secondhand smoke not a “public” health issue

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:27 AM |  

Pioneer Press
Sep. 01, 2004

No issue is too trivial to teach an important lesson. The smoking ban debate provides a teachable moment.

Despite typographically stamping their feet ("It's a public health issue. It's a public health issue. It's a public health issue."), writers lamenting lack of a statewide bar and restaurant smoking ban and Dakota County's failure to pass a local smoking ban are wrong on all counts.

Yes, smoking and secondhand smoke pose a health threat. A wayward whiff of secondhand smoke is no reason to go "Chicken Little," and statistics attributing death and illness to secondhand smoke proceed more from political agenda than scientific rigor, but it's tough to deny that a room engulfed in the blue haze of cigarette smoke is not hazardous to a person's health.

Nonetheless, a bar and restaurant smoking ban, statewide or local, doesn't pass the test of a public health problem requiring government intervention. Public health/government intervention is at issue only when people are exposed to risks to which they have not consented and which pose dangers to the community at large from which individuals cannot realistically protect themselves.

No one is forced to patronize or seek employment at a smoking establishment. Diseases caused by cigarette smoke are not contagious, so there's no risk to the community. It's easy for individuals to protect themselves from the danger of secondhand smoke — don't patronize or seek employment at smoking establishments.

Moreover, the argument in favor of a statewide bar and restaurant smoking ban contradicts the concept of "federalism" — the checks-and-balances system among federal, state and local governments. Holding "Big Al's Bait and Grill" located by a snowmobile trail through Muskee Cheek to the same smoking ordinance as "Liberal Libations" just off the light-rail line in the heart of the "sustainable urban environment" abolishes any illusion of local community control.

Ironically, however, therein lies the proper path for the smoking ban folks.

Stripped of their fallacious public health scrubs, smoking ban proponents are nonetheless within their legal right to don a crown and elect a city council or county board that will autocratically impose their prejudices "just because it can."

Smoking is not an unalienable right. And for smokers under siege, like nonsmokers in the current environment, there are alternatives: Patronize establishments in nearby communities without a smoking ban; elect a local government that does not support a smoking ban.

But before dousing the smoking lamp, smoking ban proponents should consider this: Because a government-imposed smoking ban on private business is not a public health crisis, merely a majority whim, government, acting on behalf of "the public," has certain obligations to those affected by such an ordinance.

It is unjust for government to arbitrarily change established conditions in the marketplace without compensating private businesses for losses they might suffer because of such changes. If "the public" benefits from dictating a change in long-established codes governing the ways a person may use his or her private property, then "the public" should justly compensate the individual property owner for any losses incurred by that change.

(Would public officials be so quick to impose their prejudices if their constituents had to foot the bill?)

A legitimate local ordinance might ban smoking in all new establishments, and require that when an existing bar or restaurant is sold to new ownership, it is required to go smoke-free. But, when a bar or restaurant is sold, the local government then assumes an obligation to pay the seller the fair market difference between the sale price as a smoke-free establishment and a smoking establishment.

If ban supporters are correct, entrepreneurs will be anxious to open smoke-free establishments. If smoking ban proponents are correct that smoking bans produce no dire consequences, there is virtually no financial risk to taxpayers. If they are right.

If smoking ban proponents have the courage they claim government lacks, they will "do the right thing" and abandon the excessive call for statewide smoking ban legislation and insist upon compensation to private business owners for any effects of local smoking ban ordinances.

Then we'll see who learns a lesson.


Previous columns by Craig Westover on government overreach:

Who'll stop the sunshine?

Government obesity is preventable