Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Patriot Insider -- Smoking Bans

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:31 AM |  

During the second hour of Saturday’s “Patriot Insider,” in-studio guests were Penny Steele, Hennepin County Commissioner opposing smoking bans and St. Paul City Councilman, Dave Thune, champion of the smoking ban in St. Paul.

As noted in the first hour, this segment on smoking bans was a continuation of the theme that government has legitimate authority in the areas of eminent domain (first hour discussion) and public health and safety, in this instance smoking bans, but that unless specific criteria are established, government will expand legitimate authority beyond acceptable boundaries.

I introduced the topic of smoking bans noting that in all the emotional debate and testimony that has been given on this topic, it has never been addressed in a straight-forward logical progression from what is the risk to what are the consequences to what ought to be the policy. That was the outline for the discussion.

I started the discussion by asking Dave Thune what evidence convinced him that secondhand smoke was indeed so dangerous that it rose to the level of necessitating government intervention. He responded with the non-answer that although he favors less government intrusion into private lives, it is the duty of government to protect people’s health.

Couldn’t let him get away with that, so we tried again -- that government has a duty to protect public health is not at issue. What is at issue is whether or not secondhand smoke is a danger that rise to that level. What is Thune’s evidence.

I was hoping for just one study, one example, one piece of concrete data from the “mountain of research” cited by Bob Moffitt of the ALA from which he cannot produce one study that he can defend. But Thune also went with the "avalanche" citation and common sense citing “every real research study” supports the “extreme dangers” in the work place, especially when an employee breathes it for a whole shift.

My pleas for just one study, one discussable fact went unanswered. But more discouraging was that as a policy maker, Thune apparently felt no obligation to question data he was fed. He noted he was not a scientist and flunked that “numbers course” (“Statistics?” asked Steele.) Thune noted he played music in bars and had to breathe the smoke all night (although he’s also a smoker). It’s just "common sense" that that is bad for you was his argument.

In answer to the same question, Steele jumped ahead a bit as well, noting the government has the obligation to protect public health when people can’t judge a risk. She used food regulations as an example. However she asked, why should people regulate what people do on private property. She was okay with smoking bans in court houses and public places. Steele said that was her starting point on smoking bans, but that she had also read some of the studies on secondhand smoke, and found most of them were mainly hype.

Patriot Program Director and co-host Patrick Campion noted that virtually all statistics on secondhand smoke go back to a study done by the National Cancer Institute, an institution with a vested interest in making secondhand smoke seem as dangerous as possible.

Thune argued with that, using the analogy that people that think secondhand smoke is not dangerous are like people that believe the world is flat and are asking others to prove that it isn’t.

Patrick made the point that no study shows how bars specifically contribute to the problem. Thune argued that the data comes from international studies not just one study, but again, could not cite a single example from the “mountain of data.”

My brief point was how can policy makers use data if they don’t understand it.

The board was full, and we took some calls. The first caller -- Kerry -- set a theme for the show by noting that Thune’s position seemed to be 10,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong. His question was why Thune felt that economic loss from the smoking ban was acceptable including the unemployment that was indirectly caused.

Thune responded that some bars have already closed and are blaming it on the ban, which hasn’t taken affect yet. We tabled the question until we had a chance to get into the economic issues.

Phil from New Brighton, a regular caller ranted about being tired of liberals butting into to private lives and said smoking bans hurt business. Patrick challenged him for his empirical data and Phil said it was just “common sense.” I noted Phil must have read the same books as Councilman Thune and we moved on.

Caller Jeff disputed that Thune was against government intrusion. He said his neighbor complains when he smokes a cigar in his backyard and did Thune want to ban outdoor smoking. Thune said no, Jeff had a “God-given right to smoke in his backyard.” I noted that California is moving in the direction of banning all outdoor smoking.

At this point, I made the point I made in the post here -- that the issue for a policy maker was looking at the extent of the risk and the consequences before making policy. Data from the California EPA study making a case for banning outdoor smoking showed that while there is a correlation overtime between secondhand smoke exposure and lung cancer, that it is decades before there is a statistically significant risk.

The question for a policy maker is does a risk voluntarily accepted over decades and then producing a minimal danger justify a policy that creates significant economic harm and tramples private property rights and individual choice?

A caller -- Quentin -- questioned why a minority favoring a smoking ban should be able to impose it on the majority that don’t want it.

I noted that smoking bans are popular and Thune added that the St. Paul ban is widely supported. That 10,000 Elvis fans favor, however, I noted, did not make it right.

Patrick asked a key question of both Steele and Thune, how the popularity of smoking bans affected their votes on the bans.

Thune said that he considers that he was elected to represent the beliefs of those that voted for him, but he recognizes that some of the worst government policy is made by sticking a finger in the air to see which way the polls are going. Nonetheless he contended, you only have one chance sometimes to get things right, and he believes he is right on the smoking ban.

Steele agreed with Thune that you have to vote what you think is right. She voted against the ban before she stood for reelection. She noted that liberty is a big deal and she simply could not step away from that and cast a vote that might have been expedient at the expense of property rights..

A caller -- Lance -- said that there could be no good secondhand smoke studies because it was nearly impossible to have good control groups.

Because Thune admitted having trouble with statistics, I took that question and noted that there were studies with good control groups that showed correlations between disease and secondhand smoke, especially the effects on infants and young children. But again, I noted, policy makers ought to be looking at data relative to bars and restaurants, and that data -- same methodology -- showed no statistically significant effects even after decades of exposure.

We then moved into a discussion of economic impact of smoking bans. That dealt with aggregate statistics (it is unfortunate Thune didn’t do better in that class).

Steele, who’d read the various studies noted that a lot of the detail on liquor sales had to do with off sale numbers -- people buying liquor and drinking at home where they could smoke. She lamented that people didn’t look at the facts and look for the truth instead of the hype.

Steele noted how over time the testimony of the health community shifted from being about public health to being about protection of workers. Yet in the testimony made before the Hennepin County Commissioners, it was workers testifying how the ban threatened their jobs and incomes. She noted that some hospitality workers had to sell their homes others testified in front of television cameras about the disarray of their personal finances -- some were older people that had worked hard all their lives and were now telling the world about losing their businesses. She said that in addition to herself, Peter McLaughlin, who cast the swing vote on the Hennepin County rollback, was moved by that testimony. The ban was suppose to protect workers, but it was the workers that kept coming back to testify. (She also noted she was a muscian, like Thune, but by choice she played in church where smoking was not an issue.)

Thune’s response was that 99 percent of the testimony he listened to was emotional and subjective. He admitted not being scientific and questioned if any of us had a scientific background (for the record, I studied that "numbers stuff"). His point was we have to believe the experts and when health experts say that secondhand smoke kills, he believes them. The same with economics. He judges who has the best knowledge -- he believes that a lot of the talk about economic harm is fed to the media by “Big Tobacco.”

I counted to ten while Steele responded that the Big Tobacco argument was nonsense. She went back to her point about being honest. If Thune wanted to make the case that public health trumps liberty, then make it, but don’t try to hide the fact that a lot of small bars are economically hurt by smoking bans.

Caller Mark brought up the St. Louis Park air quality standard study that found the air quality in bars with ventilation equipment (and allowed smoking) to be 15 to 500 times safer that OSHA standards.

Thune responded that OSHA has no standard for secondhand smoke, revealing the danger of relying on experts. That’s the mantra of health groups. As I pointed out to Thune -- who apparently hasn’t read this study either -- OSHA does have standards for all of the toxic chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Nicotine is the only chemical marker for secondhand smoke that is not found naturally in the environment. To test for any other chemical would confuse the results with ordinary environmental exposure. But that’s science for people that read not for people that believe science is whatever the ALA says it is.

I noted that Mark’s point is really that if the question were about public health from a policy perspective and not a social engineering experiment, then we’d be talking air quality standards and not behavior change.

So, I asked our guests , what criteria do they use to determine when a risk rises to the level of a public health issue necessitating government intervention.

Steele said that good science and solid evidence id necessary before trumping private property rights. You must show that people have no opportunity to deal with health risk. She agreed with what Rep Johnson said at the end of the first hour, that there is a big risk of abuse when government tries to protect adults from themselves.

Thune responded with the bunker positions of smoking ban proponents -- bars and restaurants are public places, secondhand smoke is a proven health risk, hospitality workers don’t have a choice about where they work, the only reason the Minnesota Clean Air Act allows exceptions is politics and the world has caught up.

Patrick closed out the show asking if either supported a statewide smoking ban. Steele, no; Thune, yes.

There’s really not much to add by way of summary. I think Penny Steele said it best -- if Thune wanted to claim that secondhand smoke was a health risk (for which he could not produce a specific piece of evidence to support his view or demonstrate an understanding of the statistics that were fed to him) and that it trumped private property rights and economic harm (which he’s admitted happens) then be honest about it. Don’t try to make it seem like you’re being noble and doing it for workers that don’t want it.

I’d add, don’t claim you’re making a policy decision when you’re really trying to appease the non-smoking majority. If the issue were really about public health and not shifting the failure of health groups to get people to stop smoking onto the taxpayer, we’d be talking air quality, not behavior change.

Bottom line -- we get whom we vote for.

Category: The Patriot, Smoking Ban, Public Health