September 9, 2002

Bloomberg Blowing Smoke

By: Matt L. Ottinger

In his first year as mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg recently initiated a movement to ban smoking in all of the city’s bars and restaurants. This follows on the heels of a 1995 law that banned smoking in all NYC restaurants with 35 or more seats. Apparently the previous measure was not oppressive enough to get out the word that smoking is — get this — bad for you.

Since this type of legislation is protected by the Constitution, one can not argue that this statute violates smokers’ rights, since those rights are subject to the legislation of each particular state. However, this law is still a violation of smokers’ personal freedoms, which should be protected by intelligent and principled lawmakers. What’s more, it is a slap in the face of New York’s business owners who would otherwise have the right to make their own decisions regarding their business and establishing their own market niche. It is inexcusable that the rights of business owners and the principles of capitalism should be sacrificed simply because the government wishes to impel a virtuous agenda.

Imagine that you are an entrepreneur in the Big Apple. You put years of experience, education, and market research to work as you implement the various goals and strategies you think will set your business apart from your competitors, including the decision of whether or not to allow smoking. You weigh the options of whether smoking would attract or deter more customers. Based on the preference of your customers, you might choose to allow smoking throughout your establishment, in half of your establishment, in 68 percent of your establishment, or not at all. Or, you might choose to ban smoking on the basis that you find it morally repugnant. But whatever option you choose, you would do so with the understanding that your decision would affect your bottom line and thus your ability to keep your doors open. And if smokers were driving away your business, you would do something to stop it.

Bloomberg claims that his initiative is in the interest of public health. But if that’s the case, why not simply mandate that smoking areas and non-smoking areas be separated by walls and doors? Even that is unnecessary, however, because those who wish to insulate themselves from second-hand smoke can already patronize bars and restaurants where smoking is forbidden; the same goes for employees. Obviously, if smoking were such a plague upon humanity, most establishments would not allow it in the first place. So where is the need for government coercion and a corrosive infringement on Americans’ individual freedoms?

The argument that second-hand smoke causes cancer and should therefore be regulated out of existence has yet to be backed up with strong empirical evidence. What’s more, it ignores the fact that carcinogens also exist in any number of ubiquitous objects of daily life, including the sun and Big Macs. How lobbyists have ignored these societal dregs one will never know.

Another argument often made by supporters of restrictive laws is that tobacco smoke violates their air space and is thus a nuisance. But the same could be said for cheap cologne and halitosis, but lawmakers have yet to target these indecencies. Granted, in a democracy any activist with an axe to grind has the opportunity to try to outlaw anything he finds repulsive. However, the public’s — and most importantly the taxpayer’s — best interest must be the primary consideration since they will fund the police and public health officials needed to enforce the law.

Bloomberg’s proposal is in fact only the latest in a series of disturbing government actions with regard to smoking. This began with the extortion of $246 billion from the tobacco industry in the 1994 lawsuit against “big tobacco.” That crusade wasted $40 million in taxpayer money on legal fees and resulted in tax hikes on cigarettes that have since become common at virtually every level of government.

Bloomberg and the like forget that cigarettes are (still) a perfectly legal product. But let’s be honest, the ultimate design of this feel-good legislation is to consign cigarettes to the status of alcohol during prohibition. Of course, in that case proscriptive laws did nothing more than induce violence and create black markets at the expense of taxpayers and the spontaneous order created by a free-market economy.

Although it may be convenient for lawmakers and moral do-gooders alike to target smokers as detrimental to society and label them with persona non grata status, it seems as though innocent entrepreneurs may be the ones who will ultimately be punished. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg has decided to use his bully pulpit to appeal to the majority rather than defend the principles of capitalism that he, as both a public official and a veteran of the private sector, should have an ardor for protecting.