Arguing with James about tobacco

My MetBlog colleague Mr. Foreman had an entry about the smoking ban earlier today. As a good little libertarian, I understand where he’s coming from, but I have to argue the other side. He’s half right — there’s no reason to do this for the customers. Speaking as a customer of many Pittsburgh watering holes, I know which establishments will and will not blow lots of cigarette smoke in my face, and I take my money mostly to the latter. The part that, in my marginally-qualified medical opinion, he’s wrong about is the employees.

See, the problem is that “Prospective employees can choose not to work at such locations,” is a false statement. I’ve spent the past three months treating the uninsured, underinsured, and medically underserved of Allegheny County, and I’m going to spend the next year-and-some-change doing the same. I see a lot of patients who smoke. Some, we’re able to help quit. When we’re not able to, one of the biggest factors is that they’re constantly around people who smoke. The fact is that there’s more job-seekers than there are jobs in our fair city, particularly for that segment of society that doesn’t have a lot in the way of higher education. These folks don’t have a choice of jobs — they have a choice between the job that exposes them to tobacco smoke all day, or no job at all.

People should be free to choose what they put in their own bodies and who they associate with, but there’s no reason to force them to choose between poisoning their long-term health and being able to eat tomorrow.

9 Comments so far

  1. James Foreman (unregistered) on May 2nd, 2007 @ 7:25 am

    Ah, yes. Nanny state.

    No. It’s not the role of the government to decide that because some people in the city are currently unable to find work that doesn’t expose them to cigarette smoke, a law must be passed that rescues them from the horror of low-wage jobs that may or may not involve patrons who smoke.

    This is a question with which I will always disagree with my lefty friends – the ability of a business owner to choose whether he or she allows smoking on his premises is more important than a few hundred employees who may or may not currently find work elsewhere.

    Or, in a handy, glib phrase: freedom is more important than security.

    The logic behind the smoking ban is another step toward the dangerous conclusion that the government is allowed to pass laws in order to “protect” a segment of the population that the supporters of such laws believe are too stupid or not educated enough to protect themselves. Thus, you have NYC’s ban on transfats – the poor can’t afford to eat anything but McDonald’s, so we have to make McDonald’s safe for them.

    It’s a fallacious point of view, and one that does not jive with the principles upon which this country was created.


  2. Alik Widge (unregistered) on May 2nd, 2007 @ 12:13 pm

    Or, in a handy, glib phrase: freedom is more important than security.

    Yes — to the degree that it does not deprive another of his/her own freedoms. Or, to borrow another handy, glib phrase, my right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.

    People have the right to smoke in their own homes and cars. They have the right to eat all the Quadruple Stackers with bacon they want. They have the right to ride their motorcycles without helmets. (Eventually, they have the right to pay my colleagues big bucks to deal with the consequences of the above.) They do NOT have the right to impose the consequences of their own choices on other non-consenting citizens. Remember, one of the fundamental principles of liberty is ensuring that a majority (smokers) is not able to deprive a minority (non-smokers) of its rights.


  3. James Foreman (unregistered) on May 2nd, 2007 @ 11:05 pm

    I agree with your sentiment, but I disagree with your conclusion.

    One does not step into a boxing ring on fight night and is then surprised to be punched in the nose. By patronizing an establishment that allows cigarette smoking, you are accepting the risk of inhaling it. You can’t sit at a table at a cigar bar and then accuse the other patrons of trying to kill you with their smoke.

    By being in a restaurant that allows cigarette smoking (there are many that don’t), you are accepting that you might inhale second-hand smoke. Nothing is being forced upon anybody. You’re not forced to be there, and you’re not forced to work there. Say what you will about temporary economic necessity for a very small segment of people, but nobody is forcing them to work there.

    But the smoking ban explicitly forces bar and restaurant owners to disallow smoking of any kind on their premises. The government wields its fist, and it hits the business owners square on the honker.


  4. Alik Widge (unregistered) on May 3rd, 2007 @ 11:44 am

    Say what you will about temporary economic necessity for a very small segment of people, but nobody is forcing them to work there.

    This, I think, is central to the argument, and needs a lot more justification. They have the option of working around a known toxin or of starving to death, which to my mind is not a choice.


  5. James Foreman (unregistered) on May 3rd, 2007 @ 5:33 pm

    I’d like to see the proof of that assertion before I agree with it. Anecdotal evidence just isn’t enough.

    What about people who only have the option to work in steel mills? Or coal mines? There are many jobs with inherent dangers.

    The choice you suggest is not binary. Are you really saying that people who work in smoky bars or restaurants have no choice to work anywhere else? I don’t buy it. Not until I see the proof, at least.

    Short of that, it’s a heart-string-tugging but unproved notion that should not be used as a reason to violate the freedoms of Americans.

    Also, if saving lives is the only reason for this law, it’s not doing a very good job of it. If you really want to save people, outlaw smoking completely. Criminalize cigarettes.

    That notion is absurd and silly, and an obvious revocation of basic rights. But the same reason why you might balk at such a notion is the same reason why I reject the logic behind the smoking ban.

    “If it only saves one life, it’s worth it,” is a phrase I dread to hear. It’s a terrible reason to violate somebody’s rights.


  6. John Morris (unregistered) on May 3rd, 2007 @ 6:06 pm

    I actually think that the owner of the place has some rights too. Suppose for example, you had just opened up a healthy non smoking bar and wanted that to be an advantage?


  7. Alik Widge (unregistered) on May 4th, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

    It’s essentially impossible to get good empirical data on what jobs are and aren’t available in Pittsburgh-area economically depressed communities, so you’re stuck with my observations of walking and driving through those towns. Said observation is that bars, restaurants, and convenience stores appear to be about the only business still in existence. So yes, I *am* saying that for a substantial-if-not-majority fraction of the people working in bars and restaurants, they’re not able to get another job.

    That said, let’s look at this:

    What about people who only have the option to work in steel mills? Or coal mines? There are many jobs with inherent dangers.

    Indeed. And in general, our approach to this has been to require that workers be provided with appropriate protective equipment. This isn’t about saving lives. It’s about each person’s right to not have poison forced down his/her lungs. I suppose I could live with a ban that allowed exemptions for bars that provided their employees with respirators…


  8. James Foreman (unregistered) on May 6th, 2007 @ 12:23 am

    Sorry, Alik, I just don’t buy it. If a law that obviously violates the freedom of a business to decide what can and can’t be smoked on his premises is written without the benefit of empirical data, then it’s a bad law.

    Great care must be taken when we decide what needs to be banned or outlawed, and the preponderance of evidence must lie on the side that seeks to restrict our liberty.

    Get everybody together who agrees with you, organize them into a batallion of money-spenders and vote with your feet. Make it known that a large group of people with discretionary incomes will no longer support businesses that allow smoking in their establishments. Exclusively patronize restaurants and bars that don’t have smoking sections.

    Laws are like nuclear weapons: they should be used only when absolutely necessary, and only when there is no other option.


  9. John Morris (unregistered) on May 6th, 2007 @ 12:03 pm

    I think that in general what you find is that laws that are followed tend to be supported by broad trends and habits. In NY for example, you reached a point at which a very high percentage of people did not smoke, so you had a lot of support for it. It seems like here, there are far to many people who smoke for this to fly.

    It’s not P.C. to say this but child labor laws are a very good example of this. These laws came into being at a point at which incomes and worker productivity had risen to the point in which parents could support their children.



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