Thursday, December 15, 2005

Billings and butts

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:46 PM |  

I can’t really blame Laura Billings for her column today commenting on the smoking ban. Another Twin Cities’ columnist might criticize her for not getting off her duff and driving the 10.1 miles between her desk and the Hennepin County Government Center to observe the public hearings and the vote to roll back the smoking ban, but surely not I.

Had Billings, however, made the trek she would have observed the testimony from business owners that six Hennepin county commissioners heard and Penny Steele listened to -- with both ears and her heart.

In the discussion prior to a vote on the amendment to roll back the Hennepin County smoking ban to exempt “bar bars” from the smoking ban, three commissioners pontificated (Dorfman, Koblick and Johnson), two were pragmatic (Opat and Stenglein), one was self-serving (McLaughlin). Penny Steele wept.

Paying tribute to the courage of the business owners that came before the council, appearing on television, and opening themselves up, Steele herself choked up as she recalled testimony about businesses closed, life-savings lost, homes sold, and jobs lost. Government should not do that to the citizens whose rights it is suppose to protect.

Penny Steele gets it. Laura Billings does not.
While this is considered a coup for smokers, Hennepin County's flip-flop might also be a sign of how far the issue has strayed from its initial framing, as a way to improve public health and cut down on the $2.6 billion the state loses every year on tobacco-related health expenses and lost productivity.
Billings is among those people that have berated Americans to challenge authority when it comes to the war in Iraq or refusing to increase funding to public schools. But questioning authority should only go so far. It’s not right to question the authority of good guys like the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and doctors and public health officials over their unsubstantiated claims about secondhand smoke.

In refusing to state the public health case for secondhand smoke for the “Devil’s Weed” documentary, Bob Moffitt of the ALA stated that the subject had been debated enough -- or in the case of the Hennepin country rollback, perhaps it was debated too much.

On Tuesday I spent over an hour on the phone with an internationally published epidemiologist and cancer researcher, who by the way supports the idea of smoking bans in bars and restaurants because it motivates people to stop active smoking. In addition to supporting smoking bans, his published research has debunked much of the so-called science surrounding secondhand smoke. He doesn’t want his name used because he, frankly, is tired of being called a “minion of big tobacco” by the ALA, ACS, et al despite the fact he hasn’t taken a dime of tobacco money and supports smoking bans.

This epidemiologist's general opinion -- Certainly over time secondhand smoke can cause health problems taking into account a host of other environmental and personal health factors. But it is nowhere near as dangerous as ban supports make it out to be. There is no way to scientifically or statistically justify the body count attributed to secondhand smoke, especially where there is no direct biological connection (like inhaling to lungs); for example, there is no way to attribute cardio-vascular deaths specifically to secondhand smoke. His professional integrity is more important to him that his personal opinion.

So kudos to those that challenged the authority of people that thought a degree substituted for a scientific argument. Stripped of the dangers of secondhand smoke, the next step of the powers that be is attacking the economic argument.

Like Democrats running away from their affirmations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when Clinton was in office, smoking ban supporters are abandoning the comments they made that no other state with a smoking ban suffered economic loss and there would be no economic loss in Minnesota. Backed into a corner by the testimony at the Hennepin County hearings, smoking ban supporters have fallen back on aggregate statistics to make the testimony disappear.

I posted on this in regard to the recent Pioneer Press article that claimed fears of economic loss from a smoking ban were “unfounded.” Aggregate date is the data of economists and tyrants; it is safe to assume Billings, Moffitt et al are not economists. When the issue was still public health, "Big Bob" didn't think economics was worthy of discussion.)

What I really wanted to post about was Peter McLaughlin’s stand on the smoking ban. When McLaughlin read his statement prior to the vote (“read” is the operative word; as they say in the oldest profession, “sincerity costs extra”) and announced his intention to vote for the roll-back amendment, the assembled bar owners applauded and cheered. A word of caution -- When you make a deal with the devil, don’t be surprised if it goes to hell.

While Penny Steele listened to the testimony of bar and restaurant owners, McLaughlin was merely exploiting them. He has no sympathy for their plight. His stated goal is a statewide smoking ban, and he doesn’t particularly care what it looks like. As long as it takes the monkey of making a decision off of his back, he’s fine. If a statewide ban kills bars on the Iron Range or mom and pop coffee shops in out-state Minnesota, I don’t think Commissioner McLaughlin is going to get too upset. He openly stated he still favors a ban, and his vote was not a flip-flop but a strategic move to more easily accept a statewide ban.

I’ve also written about why bans, if we must consider them, should be considered, as we are doing, at the local level. Among the examples I give to support my argument (a novel concept) is precisely what happened in Hennepin County. A group of business owners hurt by government action were able to bring their claim before the governing body, present evidence, and have the bad law rolled back. There is little or no chance to do that at the state level. How are mom and pop restaurants across trual Minnesota to unite and bring any influence to bear at the state legislature to say “Hey, you’re killing my business with a smoking ban.”

That brings me to my final point for now. The debate over the ban has moved from a phony public health position to a very real economic argument. But we haven’t reached the end of the line. I’m not going Scientologist here, but “the Final Battle” will take place when we strip the smoking ban argument of irrelevancies and get down to the real issue -- Just how much government involvement do we want in our daily lives, and just how free a society do we want to live in?

As many of the Hennepin County commissioners noted, protecting public health is their proper function. But what none of those commissioners offered was a definition of the criteria by which they judged when a public health issue rose to a level that NECESSITATED government intervention. Those same commissioners justified a ban “because people liked it.”

BTW -- I made the public health criteria argument to the epidemiologist. He hadn’t considered it before. I didn’t convince him, but we’re going to talk again. He wants to think about it. People that are intellectually honest, whether dealing with science or politics, aren’t afraid to challenge their thinking.

That, Laura, sounds very good, even in the original “American.”

Category: Smoking Ban, Local Politics