Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Comments on today's Pioneer Press smoking ban coverage

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:35 PM |  

Despite a misleading headline and a lead that betrays its bias, the “big” story in the Pioneer Press, “Smoking ban fears prove unfounded,” is still a pretty good piece of data collection, a pretty good piece of analysis. Unfortunately, analysis and reasoning are not the same thing. The “big” story misses the “big” point.

Let’s start with the headline -- “Smoking ban fears prove unfounded.” Whose fears? Certainly the fears of those that predicted “economic disaster” “appear” as the first line of the story reads, to be wrong. But the fears of individual bar and restaurant owners over lost business, the fear of charitable gambling concessions and their beneficiaries over lost revenue, the fears of suppliers to bars and restuarants that their businesses might be hurt, the fears of people hoping for sensible public health policy have all proved true.

Just a note about the lead and journalist objectivity. It reads --
Smoking bans in the Twin Cities do not appear to be the economic disaster many predicted.

Overall, the hospitality industry continues to grow despite claims that bans are hurting individual bars and restaurants.
Okay, from a lead that reads “do not appear,” we get a headline “prove unfounded.” That’s a stretch outside the question of whose fears are proved unfounded. Second, that the hospitality industry continues to grow is stated as a fact (which it is) but hurt to individual bars is presented as only a “claim” (it is a fact as well) despite the Pioneer Press examining the books of a bar making that “claim” and reporting that its business is down because of the ban.

Those might seem like minor points, but this is a news article and subtle shades of meaning color what a casual reader comes away with. More serious is that a lot of analysis is applied to aggregate data and very little reasoning applied to the implications of the data.

The Pioneer Press does an excellent job of data collection. I’m not about to argue with their findings per se; however, nowhere in the article do they explain the significance of working with aggregate data. The significance is, aggregate data hides the impact of the smoking ban on individuals most affected by the ban. That is a characteristic of aggregate data and why it is used to justify projects with unintended consequences.

[When talking about education, many of the same people supporting smoking bans and education writers are quick to point out (correctly) that aggregate data showing student improvement hides the fact that there is a significant gap between white students and students of color. Aggregate data works the same way in underreporting the impact of the ban on specific segments of the hospitality industry.]

Data analysis of sales figures and tax revenues show what one would expect to see in a study of the hospitality industry. Ups and downs by area, but a steady if not rising revenue stream year-over-year. From that data, however, you can tell virtually nothing about the impact of the smoking ban.

First, health of the ecomony in general has more to do with hospitality revenues than does the smoking ban. While the ban hurts specific businesses, a good economy means more people are going out and spending more money. In turn that means healthy tax and sales revenues for the industry in general, as shown by the data. What is not shown by the data is the “might have been” figures with no smoking ban in place. Let’s take a specific micro example of how aggregate data hides the real impact of the smoking ban.

The Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis is a multi-venue attraction. There is the theater experience of the comedy club itself, an upper middle scale restaurant, and standard bar area where people hangout before dinner and after the show. The actual club/theater has always been non-smoking, the restaurant has been non-smoking and the bar area has permitted smoking. When owner Lewis Lee saw the ban coming, he had the luxury of raising prices in three venues to compensate for predicted loss of revenue in the bar area -- a fear that proved founded. However, while other bars are looking at 35-75 percent declines in revenue, Acme is down considerably less because of itss price increases.

[Small one-venue neighborhood bars do not have the luxury of raising prices significantly.]

So from the aggregate perspective, the ban has had only minor impact on the Acme Comedy Club. In reality however, we the people are paying more for a night of laughs, more for our dinner, more for our drinks. Thanks to government, we are spending more for the same value we were receiving prior to the ban. Whether we smoke or not, we’re subsidizing the non-smoking experience in Hennepin County -- so are the bar employees receiving less tips and working fewer hours. The government doesn’t lose anything. It essentially raises the cost of entertainment without having to shoulder the blame. But there is an impact -- one that won’t show up in the aggregate analysis of the Pioneer Press.

Accurate the Pioneer Press article might be, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Does the danger from secondhand smoke rise to a level necessitating government intervention in what is essentially the individual choice of patrons, owners and employees of any specific bar or restaurant?

No one has yet statistically established any significant danger from secondhand smoke to bar patrons or employees. At a recent Hennepin County hearing on rolling back its ban, Councilpersons Penny Steele and Peter McLaughlin challenged ban proponents to relate their general health statistics about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke specifically to the question of bars and restaurants. They were answered with stares and stutters and promises “to get back to you on that.” If there is an answer, clearly the best and the brightest of ban proponents will arrive at it after the fact of implementing the Hennepin County ban and not as a piece of pre-ban evidence demonstrating necessity for a it. They'd rather the debate just went away.

No one has yet offered criteria by which a county board or city council evaluates whether an individual health issue rises to the level of a public health issue. No one has made the case that a smoking ban is a “necessary” government intervention. Sure, government “can” pass smoking ordinances. No one has provided a reason why they “must” impose a smoking ordinance. In a country based on limited government, government must do only what it must do, not necessarily what it can or some, even a majority, would like it to do.

Closer to the rationale for a smoking ban is the short whine appearing on the Pioneer Press editorial page (not available on line) “Merry . . . hack . . . cough . . . Christmas” (that may be the only time you’ll see “Merry Christmas” on the editorial page).
A blue haze hangs over the entranceways linking its [MOA] stores to parking ramps, leading shoppers to cover their noses and glare at the smokers -- some their fellow shoppers, others employees on break. . . .

How about some enforcement [of Bloomington’s ban]? It would be nice to shop without hacking and coughing.

Better still, how about some personal responsibility from smokers? If you must, light up after you get in the car and close the door.
Fact is, the smoking ban isn’t about public health. It isn’t about economics. We just don't like people that smoke. We don't like smelly clothes and hair. The ban is really about people with the power to do so using government to control the lives and liberty of others in their own pursuit of happiness. Your freedom sacrificed for their convenience. A smoking ban may look like a free lunch to people like the editorial writer, but every little loss of freedom must be paid for sooner or later -- with interest.

Category: Smoking Ban, Public Health, Local Politics

Update: King Banaian adds some scholarly insight to the concept of aggregate statistics and provides some balance to the Pioneer Press study from a economic impact study done by Hennepin County.