Thursday, August 18, 2005

Take it Outside
Former Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfus (the first candidate I ever voted for, elected in November 1978--and a Republican) once characterized Madison as "68 square miles surrounded by reality." People up here tend to embrace that distinction. They love to dream things that never were and say "why not?"--and then make those dreams into reality. Take the total ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, which went into effect on July 1. No matter how big or small the place, no matter how effectively segregated a the establishment's smoking area had been in the past, it doesn't matter. Smoking inside of restaurants and bars is verboten here, period. (Even, I kid you not, in cigar bars.) If you want to light it up, you gotta take it outside.

From a public-health standpoint, this is a slam dunk. The dangers of secondhand smoke are well-established by research, and it seems fairly commonsensical to say that people shouldn't have to be exposed to such dangers against their will, especially when they're out for a nice dinner and a couple of drinks. And only a total ban on smoking would be truly effective--for every restaurant that does a good job of keeping the smoking and nonsmoking areas apart, there's one that makes a room divider out of wooden screens and fake plants, puts the smokers behind it, and then seats some unlucky nonsmokers right next to it.

As a good liberal and a nonsmoker, I should be in favor of the ban. I certainly enjoyed the fresh air while sitting in one of my favorite Madison barrooms the other night. But I think the total ban is a terrible idea. What bothers me about it is the way it infringes on a business owner's right to do whatever he wants with his property. Yes, I have railed against the completely free exercise of that right in the past, both in specific instances involving specific businesses, and in general terms involving the Bush Administration's drive to repeal regulations that rein in that right. I have argued that in many cases, there's a greater public good served by forbidding certain practices that might permit businesses to save money or operate more effectively. That greater-good argument is often used to argue for the smoking ban. But you're going to have to live with me being inconsistent on this issue.

Let's imagine a restaurant called El Perro Que Fuma. It allows patrons to smoke. People who don't want to eat or drink in a smoky atmosphere have two options as far as El Perro Que Fuma is concerned--they can either put up with the smoke or go somewhere else. Now let's imagine another restaurant. Let's call it El Perro Sano. It does not allow smoking. People who want to smoke have two options as far as El Perro Sano is concerned--they can either take it outside, or go up the street to El Perro Que Fuma, or some other place that allows smoking.

This situation is precisely where the marketplace should be permitted to do its vaunted magic, where potential customers of each place make their free choices based on the information they have. Exactly the wrong approach is for potential customers of El Perro Sano to go before their city council and demand an ordinance that gives them the right to smoke anywhere they want. In effect, that's what Madison's nonsmokers have done. Even in a restaurant or bar where, through free choice in the marketplace, a majority of the customers choose to smoke, the minority that doesn't want to smoke has imposed its will on the majority.

Madison's ordinance is having a negative effect on many restaurants and bars. Total takes are down, waitstaff and bartenders are being laid off, registration for fall pool and darts leagues are lagging. Many of the places reporting these negative effects are working-class neighborhood watering holes, and there's a semi-persuasive argument that the ban is at least in part a social-class issue. You could characterize it (and some have) as upper-middle-class do-gooders presuming to make life decisions for blue-collar folk who just want to kick back in their accustomed fashion. That fashion includes smoking, which is something they freely choose to do, and who are these people to come stomping into a neighborhood bar they wouldn't normally deign to visit and telling the customers what to do?

Madison's mayor has said the ban is here to stay. Some members of the City Council are working to repeal it, or put it before the voters in a referendum. And Republicans in the state legislature are on the case, too--pushing a bill that would ban citywide smoking bans, like that enacted here and in some other Wisconsin communities. So stay tuned.

I'm not all that comfortable being opposite the liberal side of an issue, but when I apply my rule--"If the circumstances were exactly reversed, would you still support your position?"--Madison's smoking ban doesn't hold up.

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