Short Nerd Chief

Smoking still legal in Virginia restaurants (at least until next year)

Posted by Fred on February 11, 2008

The Virginia House of Delegates appears to have killed this year’s crop of anti-smoking bills.  As one would expect, this makes the Ban the Butts crowd irate.  Here’s Michael Paul Williams, almost, but not quite, getting his analogies right: 

Don’t offer me another specious argument against government interference, as if it’s an inalienable right for people to blow smoke up my nose.

How about my rights to clear lungs, or clothing that doesn’t require dry cleaning after a visit to a restaurant or bar?

“Freedom” has become another word for “selfish” in our society. But should diners have to expose themselves to risk because of someone’s imaginary “right” to spark up a cigarette?

In most workplaces and public buildings, we’ve come to our senses.

Imagine a cross-country or transcontinental flight in which travelers fill the already noxious air of the cabin with cigarette or cigar smoke. You don’t have to, because smoking is banned on domestic commercial flights. The airline industry survived. So would the restaurant industry.

Closer to home, it is now considered presumptuous, if not impolite, to light up a cigarette without permission in someone else’s parlor. That societal evolution is one of the few facets of American life, in this age of deteriorating discourse, that has actually become more genteel and refined.

It’s tempting to do what Williams has done here, and imagine this as a battle of smokers’ rights vs. nonsmokers’ rights.  It’s also completely wrong.  There is no right to smoke, at least not under the current expansive view of state power under the US and state constitutions.  The General Assembly could pass a bill tomorrow banning all tobacco products, and it would be constitutional (whether it should be constitutional is another matter).  There’s also no right to smoke-free air, at least not yet.  The analysis of these laws should start and end with the business owner, who would be deprived of the ability to decide whether to allow a legal activity on private property.

That’s where the flawed analogy comes in. Williams starts off right with his parlor analogy, but he doesn’t go far enough. Yes, it is rude to light up in somebody’s home without permission.  It’s likewise rude to light up in a restaurant that has voluntarily banned smoking. But if I invite you and three friends over to my house and choose to allow one of them to smoke, it would be just as rude for you to demand that they put out the cigarette because you don’t like the smell.  You can ask politely, but if I say no, your choices are to deal with the smoke or leave.  A restaurant is no different – if the owner of the business allows smoking, you can ask that they change their policy, but if they say no, you can either deal with the smoke or leave.  It’s their property, and you don’t have any more right to demand that they kick the smokers out than you do to demand that they replace the live music with Yanni CDs or to replace the sushi with Filet-O-Fish.

Harsh? Maybe, but that’s the price of freedom.  Please don’t bring out the specious public health argument, either.  Yes, it now seems clear that extended exposure to second-hand smoke is dangerous, probably even more dangerous than extended exposure to Yanni.  But the government shouldn’t be in the business of eliminating all risk, else they start with cigarettes and end with protecting us from paper cuts and hurt feelings.  The atmosphere down at the local pub is the product of a series of voluntary contractual relationships between the business owner, his employees and his customers.  If any of them doesn’t like it, they are free to make different economic choices.

It’s also most certainly not like government requirements that employees wear hair nets or wash their hands, or that restaurant owners avoid tainted meat or comply with fire codes.  legitimate health regulations are designed to protect patrons from latent dangers that they are otherwise ill-suited to avoid.  If I order a burger, I have no way of observing whether the patty is infested with e. coli or laced with detritus shed by the fry cook.  If I go to a bar that allows smoking, I either know about the obvious risk and choose to accept it, or I am an idiot.  Smoking bans aren’t about protecting public health; they’re about banning an activity that politicians and interest groups don’t have the guts to ban outright.

I’m not a smoker and I hate the smell of smoke as much as the next guy, but the government shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing my personal economic choices (and if they’re going to do it, I’d prefer they start by banning domestic lagers, tofu and imitation crab).

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One Response to “Smoking still legal in Virginia restaurants (at least until next year)”

  1. Joe Camel said

    At this point in the tobacco war, it’s stilll possible toe accommodate smokers and nonsmokers. Putting the smokers behind a glass wall with a fan over the door is one way, Installing a Smokeeter is always a good idea.

    This is merely to shut the squawkers up. There will be no health benefit whatsoever because the smoke is harmless in the first place.

    Williams’ “right” to clear lungs should not extend to restaurants he never visits. All restaurants should be smoking or nonsmoking at the owner’s discretion.

    What are the chances of any of this happening?

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