Bans proposed here fire up debate over indoor smoking

A national think tank leader, a local economist and an outspoken chief of a local nonprofit face off Tuesday in the latest discussion about the merits and constitutionality of municipal and statewide indoor smoking bans.

The idea of banning smoking at establishments statewide has never gained much traction with Missouri lawmakers, even as neighboring Illinois implemented such a public smoking ban in 2008. Only a handful of cities in Missouri — including Kansas City, Columbia and Ballwin — have smoking bans, and proposals in St. Louis city and County have faced significant opposition.

Debate details

What: St. Louis chapter of the Federalist Society hosts a debate on the proposed smoking bans

Where: Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd.

When: 7 p.m., Tues., March 17

Cost: Free

For more info: Click here to read about smoking poll done for Smoke Free St Louis city. Click here to read about Missouri Department of Health survey.

As policymakers weigh the next round of smoking ban proposals in cities like Clayton, the St. Louis chapter of the Federalist Society is hosting a discussion with three panelists who have spent significant time thinking about the issue.

* Robert Levy, chairman of the board of directors at the libertarian Cato Institute, argues that businesses should be allowed to set their own smoking policy.

* Michael Pakko, a research officer and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, says blanket bans on smoking in bars, restaurants and casinos aren’t the best solution. He favors tax subsidies or other incentives for businesses that go smoke-free on their own.

* Martin Pion, president of the Missouri Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP), sees smoking bans as the only responsible option.

Jennifer Wolsing, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Federalist Society, said she hopes the panelists touch on all the hot-button issues in the debate — including the health risks of second-hand smoke, what constitutes a public space and how businesses might be affected by smoking bans.

“People have very strong beliefs one way or another,” Wolsing said. “Anything that gets people this fired up is a good topic.”

In advance of Tuesday’s event, the Beacon spoke with each panelist about the issues dominating the smoking ban discussion. Here’s a look at what they had to say.

THE PROPERTY RIGHTS QUESTION

The debate over smoking bans typically covers everything from public policy to personal health. Levy said the conversation can quickly veer off track.

“It’s usually couched as a battle between smokers and non-smokers, which is a mischaracterization,” Levy said. “The issue, if we’re talking about private property, is property rights. My position is that property owners should be able to restrict their business to non-smokers if they want, or take the opposite approach. If we recognize private property, one of the property rights is the ability to include or exclude.”

Levy said he is not against the idea of a smoking ban on a publicly owned property that provides no easy escape from fumes. But he said he considers most of the establishments that would be affected by smoking bans to be private property.

Pion counters that smoking ban opponents such as Levy intentionally confuse the public about what constitutes a private space.

“I can sympathize with the argument about private spaces when they are genuinely private,” Pion said. “I don’t want to see government intruding on my home, on my private life without need. A restaurant, while it’s privately owned, invites the public into the space for commerce — and so the rules change. The government already regulates some of what happens in that space, so we’re just singling out second-hand smoke? That doesn’t make any sense.”

RISKS of second-hand smoke

Proponents of smoking bans point to public health studies that support their cause. A 2006 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, for instance, concluded that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke at work or home have significantly increased their risk of developing heart disease and lung cancer, the report showed.

Pion likens smoking bans to anti-litter laws. “We have them for a reason, because trash is a public nuisance,” he said. “It’s the same thing with smoking; whether you’re exposed to it for a second or 30 seconds is beside the point. These laws are meant to protect the public.”

But polls show a mixed public response to proposed bans. A poll conducted last year for Smoke-Free St. Louis, a group of city residents, organizations and businesses, showed that a plurality of city residents favored a law banning smoking in most indoor places. A survey released last fall by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found that more than six in 10 people would support a smoke-free restaurant law, but only 28 percent said smoking shouldn’t be allowed in all bars and cocktail lounges.

Pion said he doesn’t read too much into survey results. “Public policy shouldn’t be dependent on poll numbers; it should be based on what is best for the public welfare,” he said. “This is an educational process, and too few people have gotten the message that this is a genuine health issue that can be dealt with easily and inexpensively.”

Pion also finds strength in numbers — states without smoking bans are now in the minority. “It is the norm now,” he said. “People who come to St. Louis from California and other parts of the country think we’re in the Stone Age.”

Supporters of smoking bans are smartly trying to make inroads at the local level rather than trying to push through a statewide bill, Pion said. It’s usually a matter of building a coalition of interested citizens and finding someone on the city council to champion municipal or county smoking ban legislation, he added.

Levy said there’s scientific evidence on both sides about the results of limited exposure to secondhand smoke, including studies showing no real adverse health risk for “a fleeting encounter with smoke.” Still, he said he’s willing to accept the argument that smoke is an irritant to some people, and that on public property it can be banned “with some rule of reason.”

Even if the health evidence “is compelling and there’s no dispute whatsoever,” Levy said, “on private property my feelings wouldn’t be any different; owners have the right to exclude or include.”

Levy also said he also supports alternatives to smoking bans, including businesses investing in air filters. The Surgeon General’s report, though, concluded that even the most sophisticated ventilation systems don’t eliminate secondhand smoke exposure.

ECONOMIC EFFECTS

It’s safe to assume that the economy will factor prominently into Tuesday’s discussion. Pakko, the St. Louis economist, has conducted research on how smoking bans have affected businesses. One such study of Columbia, which passed a public smoking ban in 2006, showed that the ban is associated with losses in sales tax revenue from Columbia’s bars and restaurants. Businesses that serve only food show no statistically significant effects of the smoking ban, but those that serve alcohol show up to double-digit revenue losses.

“Data from Columbia show that there are still demands for smoke-filled rooms,” Pakko said. “The economic impact ought to be recognized.”

Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said in an e-mail that some businesses can document the adverse effect of the ban. But he added that the ordinance has been “well received” by residents, whom he often hears commenting on going to another city where there isn’t a ban.

“Once you get used to a smoke-free environment, you really notice the change when visiting other communities,” he said.

Pakko said bars on the whole are hit harder than restaurants when smoking bans go into effect. But he said so few economic studies have been done that it’s difficult to predict how businesses will be impacted.

“It’s difficult to extrapolate from previous cases and say this or that’s going to be result in St Louis,” he said. “I’m hesitant to directly apply numbers of Columbia to St Louis. It’s a different situation.”

One of the problems is that many of the early economic studies that found no statistically significant effects of smoking bans considered laws that had exemptions allowing businesses that complained the most to keep smoking as an option. That mitigated the adverse effects of the ban. More recent laws have been more comprehensive, and more economic data have accumulated showing that some businesses lose revenue.

Then there’s the issue of how to measure financial losses. Some businesses, in the wake of bans, build outdoor patios where smoking is still allowed. Such investment in an outdoor space wouldn’t show up in revenue loss but would affect a business’ overall bottom line.

Levy said he considers the results of studies about effects on businesses “irrelevant” to the discussion of smoking bans.

“Even if studies pointed to an aggregate increase in business, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t going out of business because the government tells them they can’t attract customers,” he said.

Pakko said an outright smoking ban is “almost never the optimal choice.” He favors alternative ways to regulate smoking, such as the enticements to businesses to outlaw smoking on their own.

“There are other policy options than simply mandating a universal policy for bars and restaurants,” he said. “A blanket ban that attempts to level the playing field doesn’t make sense in a competitive environment because some bars cater to a smoking clientele.”

And while Pion acknowledges the utility of the economic argument for opponents of smoking bans, he said it’s used to divert attention from health concerns. “In my view, implementing these bans costs virtually nothing and we get back plenty from a public health standpoint. If a restaurant starts poisoning its customers, we don’t say we aren’t going to shut them down because it’s a loss of business.”

Source: Stlbeacon

1 comment to Bans proposed here fire up debate over indoor smoking

  • generalsn

    Illinois is a good place to “study”. As can be clearly seen by those of us living near the state line over the last year, Illinois smokers have been giving the casinos, bars, and restaurants in surrounding states their full support and blessing with their feet and their money. Had the antis done the same as Illinois smokers have done by supporting the non smoking Illinois casinos (down over 20 percent), restaurants, and bars instead of ranting and raving, people might pay attention to them. As it stands, claims about bans not hurting businesses are falling on a lot of deaf ears. They need to put their money where their mouth is. The lobbyists are losing credibility everywhere they travel with their exaggerted claims.

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