Tuesday, January 04, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Smoking and gambling column "indefensible"

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:23 PM |  

Like I noted in a previous post, it’s fortunate that I spent New Year’s weekend at a secure undisclosed location. While I was off the grid, a second shot, not over my bow but aimed right at the wheelhouse, was delivered by Robert Moffitt, a veteran and communications manager of the American Lung Association. He found my column “Smoking ban will crimp charitable gambling” to be offensive and wrong.

Specifically, he objected to my “cheap rhetorical trick” of concluding my column with the question “What is value of an American flag on the coffin of a war veteran compared to a benefit (of smoke-free workplaces) like that?"

The quote is mine, the parenthetical is his characterization of what I was comparing. In point of fact, I was comparing the sincerity of the individuals operating VFW Post 1296 and American Legion 550 in Bloomington in presenting those flags with the insincerity of those caterwauling about the welfare of bar and restaurant employees (or making insincere promises to support non-smoking bars) when they are only concerned about their own convenience when dining out, even if that means ignoring the property rights of others. The entire paragraph Mr. Moffitt misrepresents is this --

But then the self-righteous will be able to drink and dine without the annoyance of other people’s bad habits. What is value of an American flag on the coffin of a war veteran compared to a benefit like that?
In his opening paragraph, Mr. Moffitt states that I “usually try to defend the indefensible position that smoking in public workplaces like restaurants and bars is OK.” Well, if he has read what I wrote, he’d know that I don’t defend smoking in public workplaces like bars and restaurants. I defend smoking in bars and restaurants. In other words, on private property where no individual is required to go against his will. I agree with smoking bans in true public buildings, such as court houses and license bureaus, where a person may be required to enter without his consent. I do not support smoking bans that seek to trump property and individual rights.

If Mr. Moffitt has read my columns, then he would know that I oppose smoking bans on the basis of private property rights, on the basis of the right of contract between employee and employer, on the principle of limited government and on a criteria-based approach to public health. If those rights and principles are “indefensible,” then we’re in more trouble than Mr. Moffitt realizes.

It is interesting that I have written a number of columns that address the specific rights and principles violated by smoking bans, both local and statewide, to which Mr. Moffitt has not responded. Ah, but when statistics are involved, he flies to the battle. That’s understandable; statistics are like scripture in that even the devil can quote them for his own ends.

Mr. Moffit attacks my use of statistics in a perfectly valid way, but he does the devil’s work when he fails to acknowledge is that his counter statistics suffer the same deficiencies.

He says simply that “legitimate” studies show that there is no lasting negative impact on local business from smoking bans. He argues that, in fact, the hospitality industry has grown in many cases. All true. But what Mr. Moffit ignores is that these studies, by groups with a vested interest in the results, are aggregate studies. In other words, data is collected -- usually tax revenues -- from the hospitality sector shows that the state collects more revenue, hence, no harm from the smoking ban.

What aggregate data does not show is what happens to individual businesses within the aggregate. Revenue may increase because the economy picks up and more people go out to eat. Upper-end restaurants might see an increase in business because their clients are generally non-smokers. BUT, a number of small, neighborhood, working class bars with a high percentage of smoking clients see their revenues decline forcing some to go out of business. The ethical and rights-oriented question is “Is it OK for government to pass a law that puts some people out of business if overall the government brings in more revenue?” Mr. Moffitt does not address that question.

His second point is much the same. His definition of “no harm” is the city or state revenue does not drop. He shows no concern for any individual business that may be harmed as long as the governing body doesn’t lose any money. (It's worthy of note that the American Lung Association receives funds from the tobacco settlement money.)

His third charge that the Canadian trade association I quoted stacked the deck to get the survey results it wanted takes some real chutzpah to make. What I would like to see is scientifically how one attributes a death to exposure to secondhand smoke. I happen to be one of those people who really does believe secondhand smoke might be dangerous, but I’m hard pressed to understand where wild “estimates” like the commonly quoted “secondhand smoke causes an estimated 65,000 premature deaths in nonsmokers each year, and those exposed on a regular basis have 25 percent to 35 percent higher rates of death by heart disease” come from.

Given those “estimates,” it seems strange that Mr. Moffitt would find questionable the estimates of revenue loss made by the Eagle’s Club board trustee whose day job is financial management in a major national bank.

My data, and here is a link to additional data, is specific in that individual restaurants can chart the decline in revenue from day one of a smoking ban over time and show that it never recovers to pre-ban levels (see quote below). Such data shows the individual impact on specific businesses, not simply the welfare of the state.

One can argue statistics or one can argue principles. In the latter arena, Mr. Moffitt believes that society is better off when government edict supercedes the right of a private bar or restaurant owner to control legal activity on his property, the right of an individual to participate in a legal activity with the permission of a property owner, the right of employers and employees to enter into contracts with a mutually agreeable exchange of value all by simply labeling a widespread individual habit as a "public" health problem with no appeal to criteria for doing so.

I believe that in a free society, one must often acknowledge the right of others to do things one might find annoying and stupid. I am a non-smoker. When I go out to eat, I will generally wait for a seat in the non-smoking section or choose a non-smoking restaurant if it’s a special occasion. When I go to a bar, I expect people to be smoking, and I willing choose to be exposed to whatever risk that entails. I have no right to dictate to the bar owner or his customers that they must refrain from smoking to make my life more pleasurable.

Mr. Moffitt ends his piece with this paragraph --

I challenge all other veterans and their families -- smokers and nonsmokers -- to join me in supporting VFW Post 1296 and American Legion 550 in Bloomington as they become smoke-free on March 1.
Nice sentiment, but what about the Bloomington Eagles club? Is Mr. Moffitt going to take up bingo? How about a neighborhood bar like Stub and Herb’s over on the University Campus? Night out there with the family? You bet -- that’s what he promised to do in a very similar letter he penned back in August to the Grand Forks Herald, in which he took exception to a letter from Sue Jeffers -- owner of Stub and Herb's, who makes her living from one of those family-owned “everybody knows your name” local watering holes where the majority of regular patrons are smokers.

I'm sorry that Jeffers continues to fixate on her lost cause, instead of looking at the business opportunities of serving the vast majority of nonsmoking adults who like cold beer and hot food without the blue haze. I plan on being among the first wave of former customers who come back to Stub & Herb's on April 1 - the day Minneapolis goes smoke-free.
Must be his stump speech. If he keeps all his promises, Mr. Moffitt is going to have a very busy social calendar and a not insignificant bar tab. (Does he realize the dangers of excessive drinking and eating seasoned restaurant food?)

Sue Jeffer’s letter as printed in the Grand Forks Herald and letters from other individuals who responded to Mr. Moffitt in Grand Forks can be found here -- including a letter from a New York bar/lounge owner who writes --

I own a bar in Manhattan. I've lost nearly half my business to New York's smoking ban. The economy, the blackout, the tragedy of Sept. 11 (which was mere blocks away from my bar), none of these things kept us down for long. We're a popular place. We've been around for seven years (which is ancient in this fickle business). I had every intention of being around for at least seven more.

Now, I and my managers have not been paid for three months. We've gone without so that we could pay the bills. I've had to let go a third of my staff. And there's no explanation other than the smoking ban.
These are the individual stories that get lost in the aggregate data that Mr. Moffitt declares is “legitimate.” These are the individuals who government forces to surrender their livelihoods and property rights so others won’t suffer the inconvenience of finding a place to drink alcohol and enjoy deep-fried cheese curds where they don’t have to breathe secondhand smoke.

No one forces anyone to enter or work in a particular establishment. No one can “catch” cancer or emphysema from someone that frequents bars that allow smoking and thus pose no threat to him. An individual can quite reasonably protect himself from secondhand smoke by not going to those bars and restaurants that allow smoking.

Bottom line -- smoking bans in bars and restaurants exceed legitimate government authority; and that endangers all free people, smokers and non-smokers alike.