Monday, May 11, 2009

Flawed smoking ban better than nothing

The Wisconsin Legislature's passage of a state-wide smoking ban seems like all but a done deal at this point, and generally, I couldn't be happier. I'm about as ardent a smoking ban proponent as you're likely to find. I've enjoyed the hell out of the ban in Madison, going out to bars and clubs far more often, not worrying about whether or not my voice will stop working in the middle of a show, and being able to wear a shirt the day after going out and not smell like a chimney.

I firmly believe in the freedom and liberty of people--which stops once it begins to infringe upon the freedom and liberty of others, like my right not to inhale your smoke when I'm trying to enjoy some live music or have a meal.

But I have to admit, there are aspects of this ban bill that irk me. The fact that the workplace smoke ban applies even to hotel rooms seems, well, a bit far-reaching. Hotels generally maintain both smoking and non-smoking rooms. So when you book your stay, you can indicate which you'd prefer. Smoking and non-smoking rooms are generally well and thoroughly separated from one another in the layout of the building, and everyone is happy. Being that this situation is not at all analogous to being in a restaurant or bar where it's nigh unto impossible to keep all of the smoke away from a non-smoking section or non-smoker, I think it merits its own exception. Or at least a re-thinking.

And while I was glad to see an exemption in the bill for cigar bars, it occurred to me: Why not create a special designation and licensing process for, say, cigarette bars? Or just tobacco clubs in general? The idea came up in a lively discussion over at Dane101, and I have to admit, it seems like a perfectly reasonable compromise. Licensing for such establishments wouldn't be easy, but it would at least give a business owner the option of running an indoor bar/club specifically for smokers (or those who didn't mind being in a smokey room*). But that should be the niche, the exception, not the rule. Non-smoking establishments should be that rule.

Which is why, overall, I'm pleased as punch that the bill is being passed--even though I have the aforementioned reservations about its overall fairness. It's a start. We're shifting the playing field so that smoke-free, as it should be, is the norm. The next step, I believe, should be in carving out fair, equitable spaces for those who still choose smoke.

*Let it be noted that I also think there needs to be 1) better prevention and treatment programs for smokers, 2) stiffer penalties and taxes levied against tobacco companies, and 2) health care penalty fees for those who willfully choose not to quit. Being that I'm a fan of government-paid health care, I recognize the burden that would be placed on such a system by those who refused to take care of themselves. That's their choice, certainly, but the resulting, avoidable illnesses ought not place undo burden on everyone else.

(photo by Whiskeygonebad on Flickr)


Anonymous said...

"Licensing for such establishments wouldn't be easy, but it would at least give a business owner the option of running an indoor bar/club specifically for smokers (or those who didn't mind being in a smokey room*). But that should be the niche, the exception, not the rule. Non-smoking establishments should be that rule."

Of course that's exactly what we have now, which you apparently abhor because you can't go to clubs as often, or you don't like have a smelly tshirt. There are many bars in Milwaukee for instance that are non-smoking by choice, and many that aren't.

I think your problem is that the ones that you like happen to allow smoking.

The choice is for the business owner, and the bar goer in concert. If you want non-smoking bars, then patronize those that voluntarily do so.

Anything else is pure arrogance on your part, and restricts the liberty of other people to choose the environments in which they gather.

Emily said...

A friend of mine pointed out that I completely neglected to mention one of the most important reasons for enacting a workplace smoking ban: The health of the employees.

That was stupid of me, as I do believe the well-being of the people who work at the places I like to patronize is possibly the most crucial factor in this debate.

The argument will go, of course, that these folks can choose to work someplace else where smoking is disallowed. But anyone who's ever had to work for minimum wage knows that that's bullshit. From waitstaff to hotel room cleaners, it's entirely likely that those folks have limited options for employment in their given locations/situations. Shouldn't we do what we can to at least ensure that their work environments are relatively healthy? We do it in many other ways, through the myriad workplace safety regulations that have been past over the last century.

Secondhand smoke is a toxic substance, and exposure to it should therefor be regulated just like we do with, say, lead paint or noxious fumes, etc.

Not to mention, as my friend also so kindly pointed out, that we often fail to recognize the fact that many of the people working in these smokey environs (restaurants, bars, hotels, etc.) are not provided with health care by their employers. So it's a double whammy of bad for them.

How is that OK?

Dustin Christopher said...

"The free market can be a useful tool, but it's a terrible God." One of my favorite profs in college was fond of saying that, and I think it applies here. The free market failed to provide a number of non-smoking bars proportionate to the number of patrons who would prefer them that way, so it needed some adjustment.

Do I think it's possible to take smoking restrictions too far? Absolutely, the anti-smoking fascists in Verona proved that by banning smoking on outdoor patios, but that will thankfully be undone by the state law.

Speaking as someone who has enjoyed a smoke every once and again myself in the midst of a night at the taverns, I'd much prefer to smoke out-of-doors. Is it really so much to ask, to step out of the stale air and commotion into the relative calm of the street to light up? I can think of worse fates. Sometimes I step out for a "smoke break" and don't even light up.

And all that, all of it, neglects the argument to be made for the health of the employees.

On a completely unrelated note, there is an ad for pork underneath your piece, Emily, and maybe it's the punchiness speaking, but I think it's the funniest thing I've seen all week. I bought pork chops for super cheap at the market the other week. H1N1 FTW!

Ninja said...

The health of employees argument is asinine. When airborne pollution presents a serious problem in a workplace, we see an accute, disparate number of employee respiratory problems in the industry that can't be ignored - think coal mines and asbestos factories. This was never about the health of the workers, and that angle falls apart immediately under any serious scrutiny.

This is a life or death battle between the insurance industry and the tobacco industry, plain and simple. The insurance business can't continue to function through the coming storm of aging baby boomers while still dealing with the entirely preventable, expensive, lingering diseases that result from smoking tobacco, so making tobacco illegal is vital to their continued success. The tobacco business won't exist at all if the insurers get their way, so it's even more desperate. Money is flying all over Capitol Hill, state legislatures, and now even city halls, and ultimately, whoever pays more will win. All the people who don't like the smell of smoke or enjoy telling other people how to live are just along for the ride. Given the way things are going, and the relative depths of the parties' pockets, insurance money will eventually win out, and tobacco will be illegal in the United States. Probably a good idea, but achieved in the most backwards ass, dishonest way possible.

Emily said...

Ninja - I won't argue that both the insurance and tobacco industries have a vested interest in how these smoking ban proposals pan out.

But to extend that to say that all personal reasons for wanting a ban are irrelevant? That's quite a stretch.

You even go so far as to claim that "The health of employees argument is asinine." I wouldn't refer to anyone's health as "asinine," personally, but maybe that's just me.

Unfortunately, there doesn't yet seem to be many comprehensive studies on the effects of workplace smoking bans on employee health, but preliminary indications are that 1) employees who smoke have an easier time quitting after a ban, and 2) employees in general report far fewer respiratory problems after a ban.

Remind me again how that's asinine?

Irish Frog said...

I'm with you Emily. I'm a strong proponent of a smoking ban, but the hotel thing is a bit far. If we're passing this as a workplace safely law, what staff are being hurt if someone smokes in a hotel room? It's unreasonable to ask someone to pay for a place to stay overnight, but not allow the hotel managers to decide whether to allow smoking in the room or not.

This is very different than a bar, where someone smoking affects the health of all of those in the bar.

I'm not sure how I feel about the patio smoking in Verona. I would prefer to leave that up to the bar, as a reasonable argument could be made that the smoke is dissipating, whereas it is impossible to get rid of the carcinogens in smoke when in a building.

Ninja said...

I think that the personal reasons that motivate most individuals to weigh in on this issue are completely irrelevant to the final outcome. Smokers and people who hate cigarette smoke have been arguing about this for decades, but it's only recently become an issue that states are moving on. That's because the two industries I mentioned were at a lobbying stalemate for a long, long time. One step forward, two steps back, for both sides. But as tobacco revenue has fallen, and medical costs have shot up, the insurance industry has obtained the upper hand over the last decade, and its members have made a concerted effort to out-lobby tobacco. They're finally winning the battle in statehouses, and we're seeing state-wide smoking bans. Not a coincidence. The reason we saw municipal smoking bans a long time ago, but state-wide proposals only recently (oddball CA notwithstanding), is because the big money players weren't lobbying local government, so local governments were simply holding referenda and implementing the results. Non-smokers outnumber smokers by quite a bit, so non-smokers won the local battles easily. They would have won state battles too, but they never got that opportunity, because settling the issue means an end to the gravy train. Now that the tobacco side of that train is dying a natural death, it's time to start thinking about constituents. It certainly helps that the insurance industry is on the side of the majority, but that didn't matter for a very long time, until it became clear that it was the industry to bet on.

And sorry I confused you, but I meant that the employee health argument is asinine, not that the health concerns of individual employees are asinine. As you point out, there are no studies showing a clear relationship between smoking bans and employee health, just a lot of anecdotal examples of bartenders who cough less. We don't see a markedly higher incidence of lung disease or chronic lung conditions in employees who work in establishments that allow smoking, like we have in every other industry where airborne pollutants created a workplace health issue that required government intervention. In fact, even in those industries where we see nearly irrefutable evidence that some airborne hazard is causing serious employee health problems, the response has never been an immediate and outright ban on the offending substance. If this were a real problem, it would be very easy to prove. But the proof hasn't materialized, and the regulatory response is harsher than the response to any of the much more serious and obvious employee health situations in the past. The employee health issue is a red herring, but the truth (tobacco must be made illegal so the insurance industry can continue to function) is far less emotionally appealing, so obviously the former took center stage. That doesn't make it a real argument.

Emily said...

Ninja - We know secondhand smoke is toxic. There are piles of studies to support that. Why allow a toxic substance into the air at a person's workplace?

The reason it's taken so long to get these bans rolling is because that sort of legislation always takes a long while. We've been fighting the tobacco industry for years on this--heck, until not so long ago, we were routinely being lied to about nicotine's addictive properties and the ill-effects of tobacco in general. The more we've learned, the more we've fought against it.

Does the insurance lobby have a vested interest in the smoking ban movement? Probably yes. But that does nothing to negate the fact that smoke is toxic, and that we need to do something about it to ensure workplace health safety for everyone.

As for facts about changes in health as a result of a smoking ban? Of course there aren't many hard-and-fast statistics to point to--the bans are relatively new, and few (if any?) proper studies have been conducted. I have a strong suspicion, though, that given a couple of years, we'll start to see a whole lotta data supporting the positive effects on health as a result of such bans.

Irish Frog said...

Hmm, your belief that the medical industry would lobby the state to have smoking banned is odd. If everyone quit smoking it would be great for the people of Wisconsin, but terrible for the business of medicine. The doctors and nurses who lobby for the smoking ban are doing so because they have seen the casualties of tobacco use.

I'm not going to even address your second point. There are about million studies showing that tobacco is bad for the smoker, and the non-smoker sitting next to them. We can have a debate about owners rights, health care costs and government. We don't get to debate well accepted scientific facts.

The Lost Albatross