January 8, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Blowing smoke, or, What is this burning in my eye?

This past week, the DC smoking ban went into effect. I was, and remain, opposed to it.

On a personal level, I’m mostly ambivalent, maybe even slightly in favor of the ban. This past weekend was the first to see it in effect, and mostly it was pretty strange, a major topic of conversation for a generally strange weekend that also featured 74° January weather. As an on-again-off-again smoker, the ban rankles a little bit, but also seems like a great incentive to stick to the off-again side.

On a philosophical level, though, the smoking ban really gets me all riled up. It isn’t just my libertarian streak: though I think people have the right to cause themselves harm, society also has the right to encourage public health. If we could have a serious, honest social debate about smoking cigarettes, and the majority (of DC residents in this case) wanted to have a smoking ban in bars, then I would say, so be it. And in fact, I reckon that the majority of people in the District would vote in favor of a smoking ban. In the spirit of democratic compromise, I would sigh a little bit about people voluntarily giving up liberties, and then quietly enjoy my smoke-free bars (or in case of relapse, I’d trot outside to get a fix).

The problem is that the pro-banning arguments are disingenuous.

Spending a few hours in a smoky bar absolutely presents a health risk — a tiny but real increase in the likelihood of developing lung cancer. I won’t deny the reality of secondhand smoke as a health risk, though it is difficult to prove the long-term impact of such intermittent exposure to carcinogens. At the same time, though, spending time in a bar also significantly increases your likelihood of getting assaulted by some drunk dude, of getting your purse or wallet stolen, of getting mugged after you leave, of getting hit by a drunk driver who left the same bar, of sending a drunken text message that screws up a relationship, of hooking up with somebody that you shouldn’t hook up with. To go to a bar at all is to engage in risky behavior — it’s an adult environment where the fun or the thrill may or may not be worth the risk.

If you are really risk-averse, or looking for wholesome entertainment, then you should just stay away from bars altogether (lots of people do this, in fact). The thing is, a lot of the proponents of the smoking ban[1] have seized upon the health issue as a pretext for what is actually a matter of aesthetics. Too many people are just plain dishonest when they say that they support the smoking ban due to health reasons: what they really want is an environment that is subjectively cleaner. Smoking is seen as dirty, annoying, and low-class, and there is a certain amount of classist elitism among those patrons who look with disdain upon smokers who tend to be poorer, less well-educated, blue-collar types.

The ads in the newspaper announcing the smoking ban are instructive. They show happy bar patrons making little proclamations about how great the smoking ban is. “Now my 500-dollar suit won’t smell like smoke!” says one beaming gentleman. And I say, “exactly!” Because I think this is the underlying issue and the one that annoys me the most. The smoking ban is being justified on health grounds but its popularity rests on the arguments, “God all this smoke is disgusting” and “Ugh my jacket still reeks of smoke from last night.” And maybe those are good enough reasons to ban smoking. I just wish people would be more honest about it, and say, “We are campaigning to ban smoking in bars because we think it is gross.” We have a lot of laws and legislation that are based on “I know it when I see it” aesthetics, and that’s just the way societies work. Again, the libertarian in me hates to see anything banned for being unclean, but the democrat in me is willing to go along with the majority. I just wish the majority would be more honest about the whole thing, that somebody on the City Council would be willing to say, “Sure, we have health concerns, but what we are mostly doing is passing a law to make sure our clothes stay relatively fresh.”

I actually have a proposed solution that would seem satisfactory to me, and that is to regulate smoking in any kind of establishment — bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, or anywhere else that anybody might want to light up. What we could do is create a system of expensive smoking licenses, analogous to liquor licenses. By default, every location would be smoke-free, but those who wanted to pay enough for it could buy licenses and provide a place for the untouchables to slowly turn their lungs into tumors. “Enter At Your Own Risk” they could say, and the license framework could pay for the costs of implementation and also provide cashflow for employees’ healthcare.[2] For centuries, taverns and pubs were disreputable establishments for lowlifes and freaks — it’s only been pretty recently that respectable society starting frequenting bars. I say, let’s have smoke bars for the surly, for the stressed, for the sinners and their would-be saviors. They would be dangerous places, slightly taboo, out of sight and out of mind of the non-smoking gentry.[3]

But I guess it’s too late for that, at least for the District of Columbia. I’ll just have to stop worrying and learn to love the ban. Your thoughts?


  1. I certainly acknowledge that there are many advocates of a smoking ban on health grounds. These are generally good people, advocates for public health, and they are fighting for a good cause (even though I somewhat disagree with them). I am not arguing that activists and advocates are being dishonest or manipulative or anything like that, just that health alone is probably not a strong enough reason for the masses of people to want to overturn the tradition of smoking in bars.
  2. I am not really addressing the smoking ban’s most meritorious aspect, which is protecting the employees. The anti-smoking ban side of the argument has its own flaws, and one of them is a certain snide assumption that everybody who works at a bar already smokes. While this is not without some truth, I do care about the bartenders, waitstaff, etc. I think the only fair way to continue with smoky workplaces is to factor in the long-term health impact on those who work there and provide them with adequate healthcare. Still, while the best argument that can be made to ban smoking is to advocate for workers’ health, I don’t think your average bar patron is fighting for the ban in order to protect the workers.
  3. The same thing might work for drugs. Bring back the opium dens!