Thursday, March 30, 2006

St. Paul smoking ban a go for Friday

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:20 AM |  

Couple of smoking ban pieces worth noting in today’s Pioneer Press. The first is a complementary piece on Dave Thune on the front page. The temptation, of course, is to call it a “puff piece” and rip it. That’s the tactic that groups like the American Lung Association use whenever a person dares to question the political wisdom of smoking bans or the scant scientific evidence for the exaggerated claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke. That’s a cheap trick. It’s far more instructive to look at the Thune article and sees what it really tells us. The answer is a lot.

First, there is much to be admired in a person that sticks to his stand despite criticism. However, there is a difference between standing up to criticism and failure to consider the criticism and, when it’s a question of economic and scientific data, refusing to study and make a logical refutation of the criticism that justifies one‘s position.

Thune has stuck to his guns on the smoking ban, but he also made clear when he and I appeared on the Patriot, he does not understand the data behind scientific studies of secondhand smoke and statistical studies of the economic data of smoking bans. I sympathize with the fact that his father has emphysema from smoking -- my father, a smoker, died of cancer. Been there, done that. But that fact doesn’t change the data on secondhand smoke nor does it give a person that happens to be a council person any moral authority to justify a law.

That Thune was a smoker, rides a motorcycle, and, as Bob Moffitt of the ALAMN says, defies the stereotype of a smoking ban proponent also carries no additional moral authority. I found this comment by Moffitt amusing --
"I think that Dave defies so many of the stereotypes that opponents like to place on proponents of the smoking ban," Moffitt said. "Here you've got a Harley-riding, formerly smoking, rock 'n' roll sort of populist who doesn't fit the mold" of an anti-smoking advocate.”
The comment says more about Moffitt than Thune. If I had a nickel for every time Bob Moffitt has referred to me (a life-long non-smoker) as being “pro-smoke” and a “minion of Big Tobacco” and cast the same epithets at reputable scientists that question data he refuses to defend, well, there would be some real money behind defending property rights. I don’t cut Thune much slack for his unwillingness to educate himself enough to pass judgments on the statistics people feed him, but I cut Moffitt none.

Moffitt is a professional communicator that uses statistics to mislead and when challenged, refuses to defend his claims. That is unforgivable.

Back to Thune. The article notes that Thune pushed through a city ordinance requiring equal protection for gays and lesbians. Now as the only columnist (to my knowledge) that not only is opposed to a constitutional amendment effectively banning same-sex marriage but openly supports legal recognition for same sex-marriage, I have a little credibility to speak to this issue. (However, my argument must stand on it’s own -- as must Thune’s contention that secondhand smoke is dangerous.)

Thune’s championing of this ordinance is another example of misplaced liberalism.

There is no such thing as “group rights.” Only individual rights exist. What we have done in this country is gone from the rightful position that no individual should be discriminated against, with the burden of proof resting with the individual to prove discrimination, to the attitude that one is discriminated against simply by being a member of a group. The later is the logic Thune applies to the gay and lesbian issue and also to the smoking ban issue. The ban is framed from a collective group perspective, ignoring individual rights.
"You shouldn't avoid doing things out of a fear of not getting re-elected," Thune said. "It's not that I don't care about getting re-elected, but I think you need to do the things that you think are right and let the election fall where it may."
I agree, but an ardent belief in the justness of one’s cause neither ensures that one is right or that the end justifies the means.

That brings us back to the smoking ban. That Minnesota would be a better, healthier place if no one smoked is beyond doubt. That secondhand smoke is unpleasant, makes one’s clothes and hair smell, can exacerbate existing conditions like asthma can not be denied. That there is a correlation, albeit weak, between prolonged exposure (measured in decades) to secondhand smoke and certain diseases is also statistically valid. It is also valid that government tax revenues won’t go down after the smoking ban is implemented, although the argument can be made that they won’t rise as fast. But here’s the point that Thune and others miss in the end justifies the means approach.

The statistically supportable data on secondhand smoke is that it has no short-term impact on an individual’s health. If you take the strongest correlation, that between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, according to a study published by the California EPA (Chapter 7), one would have to work in a smoking environment for 21 years before his or her odds of contracting lung cancer exceeded that of the general non-smoking population. After 21 years, the odds increase between 3 and 50 percent (the 95 percent confidence level). The rate of lung cancer for the non-smoking population is approximately 10 in 100,000. The percent increase means working in a smoking environment for 21 years increases one’s chances of getting lung cancer go from 10 in 100,000 to 10.3 to 15 in 100,000, and that’s assuming a person does nothing exceptional such as eating right, watching his weigh and having regular check-ups.

In other words, the question for a policy maker is whether or not that risk, accepted by people that work in the hospitality industry for 21 years, justifies the public policy of a smoking ban. It has nothing to do with scary statistics nor is secondhand smoke a health crisis.

The economic effects bear up under the same analysis. From another Pioneer Press article reporting that a suit by St. Paul bar owners that would have postponed the start of the smoking ban was denied --

Though many studies on the economic effects of smoking bans have found minimal impact, bar owners say they will lose customers to cities bordering St. Paul. O'Neill said his clients are disappointed by the ruling.

Let’s set the record straight -- a smoking ban is not going to be an economic disaster for the city of St. Paul. If one is concerned about government revenues, sleep easy. Economic activity will prevail. Bar owners that can have raised prices and increased expense of promotions to bring in more taxable revenue in hopes of generating the same profit. But if your concern is about the ability of government to pick winners and losers in the market place, to arbitrarily put some people out of business for the comfort and convenience of others, then you should toss and turn a little.

Yes, the economic damage from a smoking ban is anecdotal. That’s the point. Remember the data on secondhand smoke, because the ban is positioned as necessary to protect workers’ health. A person runs a health risk from working in a smoking environment only if one chooses to work in that environment for 21 years or longer, and then the risk is minimal. A wise policy maker, in Thune’s position, must look at that data and decide is it worth putting some people out of business (and not compensating them) to protect people (who just might be out of a job because of the ban or forced to change jobs).

The final point, which is never discussed is what criteria should policy makers use to decide when an individual health issue, like secondhand smoke, rise to the level that necessitates government intervention. Government can intervene in just about anything. What people like Moffitt and Thune refuse to consider is a set of criteria for when it should do so.

The Pioneer Press story notes that the judge in the case ruled that the city never gave up its “right” to legislate health matters when it merged its health department with Ramsey County. Cities don’t have “rights”; they have power and authority. By law, power and authority are limited. However, when it comes to public health issues, there are no criteria limiting government power. That should keep one awake at night.

A hopeful note, having nothing to do with smoking bans, the eminent domain legislation that recently passed the senate contained language that would go through all Minnesota law and change the words “right of eminent domain” to “power of eminent domain.” That’s not a mere semantic change. It is, perhaps, a first step back to a “new breath of liberty.”

The Thune piece is nicely done and certainly intended to be complementary. I think that's a good thing. By portraying Thune in the best possible light, the article clearly shows us a man for whom the end justifies the means. A policy maker that is willing to use the power of governemnt, not to facilitate individual freedom. He's not afraid to impose his will on others in the name of the public good. He is not about preserving the rule of law, he' rather rule through the law. The article portrays what Dave Thune thinks a city council person should be and do -- and that is one scary vision.

UPDATE: The Kool Aid Report's Dementee does a nice job on this.