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Economics, liberties, rights endorse smoking ban

To understand whether New Orleans should ban smoking in public places and what impact this could have throughout Louisiana, it’s necessary to understand the arguments behind the issue that, on the whole, favor such a ban.

Its City Council has served notice that the issue will be considered sometime soon, with the initial contemplated legislation covering not just inside almost every place of public commerce or within 25 feet of the entrance of such a place or in the case of schools 200 feet, but also includes any publicly-owned property indoor or outdoor. The only exceptions would be some lodging rooms, some assisted living quarters, and places where large quantities of tobacco are sold or manufactured. State law sets down minimum standards where smoking may be banned but allows local governments to go further.

This argument occurs over three dimensions. The economic component looks to see whether far-reaching bans would impact negatively economic activity, which implies a loss of government revenues as well. Opponents to bans historically in many different locations trot out alleged evidence that bans would create such a negative impact.

However, in reality studies from many different jurisdictions present a mixed picture. Some show that negative impact, yet others show no significant impact and still others actual improvement. Regardless, this argument if understood properly really should have no bearing on the issue. After all, even advocates of smoking concede that the activity at the very least harms those who engage in it, for there long has been established strong association between the activity and disease and death, most often from various forms of cancer, even without finding the causal mechanism.

This means, contrary to the perception of many, that government expenditures related to smoking actually are lower as a result of its wider availability; simply, Medicaid, Medicare, and Veterans Affairs expenditures would be higher the less of it occurs because people would live longer and thereby have more opportunities to have more health care needs. While the impact to private sector activity may end up a wash, in the near term there would be a definitely negative impact to government finances, both because of increased expenditures and because of decreased revenues from tobacco taxes as use would decline. Yet the long term may end up quite differently, as increased productivity through fewer illnesses in a working lifespan and substitution away from tobacco-related activities towards more productive pursuits may increase overall economic growth and thereby tax take.

Still, if as all concerned recognize a harmful impact from smoking to the user, saving lives should take precedence over monetary considerations, mooting the economic argument. It’s the extent to which lives can get saved, however, that affects the other two arguments.

Without identification of the precise causal mechanism, proponents of wide smoking opportunity argue that “secondhand smoke,” or the direct exposure to nonsmokers of the by-product of smokers, and “thirdhand smoke,” or residue left from smoking that can impact nonsmokers, do not pose a health hazard. If accepting this, then they can wrap themselves in a civil libertarian argument by saying, as they allege no deleterious effects exist for nonusers, then it should not be banned as people are choosing to take the risk without impact to others.

But conveniently ignored in the assertion that one should have a right to smoke as an expression of personal liberty is the competing liberty of having the right not to experience that smoke, presenting a conflict where someone in order to exercise a liberty must deny liberty to others. On numerical grounds, nonsmokers appear to win, as less than a fifth of the American public smokes.

However, when speaking about fundamental liberties, majorities don’t matter. Marxism may appeal only to the logic- and fact-impaired, but free speech is considered so vital to the operation of the republic that the few actually arguing for a Marxist state and society are protected in their ability to do. Yet is smoking such an exercise of a fundamental right so important to human freedom and functioning of the republic that it must get privileged treatment?

Making this implication even less tenable is that fact that certain people do suffer immediate harm casually attached to smoking even by a faint whiff of smoke. Asthmatics, sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (ironically, often caused by smoking), and those with other maladies that have as a side effect reduced pulmonary function, such as muscular dystrophy, can go into immediate distress with even the most casual amount of smoke particles entering their bodies. For them, smelling somebody else’s smoke is not an annoyance and expression of rude and boorish behavior, but potentially life-threatening, and their numbers continue to grow as a proportion of the population as medical science increases amelioration options that allow these people to live longer and with a higher quality of life.

If there is a civil liberties case, then, preference should be shown not to those who engage in a voluntary activity to satisfy a craving, but to those who face involuntary threat to their health. Upon acknowledging this, smoking advocates alter the argument to say that those affected can remove themselves from the situation by patronizing only establishments without smoking, where the business in question can choose whether to permit it on premises. Naturally, this represents a sizable concession in that it admits smoking may be banned on all public property in order to allow all members of society access to these facilities, but does throw up a bulwark in Louisiana around such places of commerce as bars and casinos.

Yet even this argument suffers defeat on the basis of civil rights. As a minor concern, if few or no establishments voluntarily disallow smoking in a given area, it means those wishing to be employed in the hospitality or entertainment area that are anywhere annoyed to compromised by smoke are moderately to severely restricted in their employment options, impeding their abilities to pursue work in these fields, even as a number of career options still would be open for them.

But as a major concern, this environment would restrict the ability of those compromised easily by smoke or its residue to participate in commerce. While just a small portion of the public is mobility impaired to the extent that they needs ramps, wider doors, sufficient aisle space, etc. to engage in commerce, it is not unconstitutional to require that entities in commerce provide these even as they could cost the business money. The same should apply to smoking, where, in essence, businesses of any kind must supply clean air to aid the breathing-impaired public, even if its numbers are small, in its ability to engage in the commerce.

Therefore, no compelling case exists to not ban smoking on any of economic, civil liberties, or civil rights grounds. And by New Orleans doing so, this could serve as a tipping point to enact such measures in other Louisiana municipalities or, as some states have done, statewide. Currently, the largest cities with measures close to these in place are Alexandria and Monroe, but to have the state’s most significant city follow can create momentum that accelerates the trend. Undoubtedly when the measure comes up a pitched battle will ensue, but a ban as end product would constitute clearly correct policy.

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