Well, it’s official. As of midnight, it is illegal to smoke cigarettes at virtually any workplace — including restaurants and bars — anywhere in New York. This is nothing new for New York City, which had already instituted its own citywide smoking ban, but an even broader ban now applies throughout the whole state.
Up in the Buffalo area, bar patrons and bar owners are notably pissed off about this, as I learned last week when I went to several bars with Becky and her friends. At each bar, there were signs posted like this:
Now, mind you, I’m no great champion of smokers’ rights. I’m an asthmatic whose father is a hardcore nicotine addict and whose ex-girlfriend has an idiotic habit of “smoking socially” to such an extent that she’s going to be addicted pretty soon too. I personally think cigarettes are gross and disgusting. I don’t like them. I don’t like them at all.
So I have no problem with bans on smoking in public places and workplaces, including restaurants. Indeed, I support such bans. This isn’t just based on my personal feelings about cigarettes; the dangers of second-hand smoke are such that, logically, the old “my right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins” principle clearly applies. If it’s a battle of liberties between your right to smoke and my right to breathe, the latter clearly wins.
But bars? I’m not so sure we should be banning smoking in bars. Given the fact that there aren’t too many non-smoking bars out there — which market forces dictate that there would be if lots of people wanted them — I think we can safely state that a large majority of bar patrons either: 1) like having the right to smoke; or 2) are indifferent toward whether they have that right or not. So a law that bans smoking in bars is effectively putting the interests of a small minority ahead of the interests of a large majority. But why? What’s the justification for such an anti-democratic move?
Ostensibly, at least, it’s a health issue, and the same “my rights vs. your rights” argument that I discussed above applies. But in the case of bars, I think the calculus is different. People have a legitimate and reasonable expectation of healthy air in workplaces and restaurants. But people don’t go to bars to be healthy. They go to bars specifically to be unhealthy — to eat, drink, and be merry (and drink some more).
Bar patrons’ right to breathe free air is diluted by the fact that they have already made a conscious choice to enter a mecca of unhealthy behavior. If people don’t want to breathe smoky air in a bar, they could just — here’s a stunning concept — not go to bars.
That would be an unreasonable statement if we were talking about restaurants or other workplaces, but in the case of bars, it makes sense to me. Is the ability to publicly drink alcohol in healthy atmospheric conditions an unalienable right that needs to be defended by state action?
Essentially, what this boils down to is not right-to-smoke vs. right-to-breathe, but rather, right-to-smoke vs. right-to-drink. In that case, there is no compelling state interest either way, so I say, let people have their poison. Don’t regulate. Leave well enough alone.
Moreover, as I indicated above, if enough people want to drink publicly without either smoking or inhaling other patrons’ cigarette smoke — i.e., if they want to enjoy their drug of choice, alcohol, without suffereing the side effect of somebody else’s drug of choice, nicotine — surely market forces will conspire to create non-smoking bars for them to patronize. Where there’s a will, there’s a way; and where there’s a demand, there’s a supply.
The only somewhat strong argument I can think of for a ban on smoking in bars involves not so much bar patrons, but bar employees. I can’t dismiss this point too easily, since there is a possibility that I could end up working at a bar sometime in the next year, if I get desperate enough for cash. So you could argue that a smoking ban is justified to protect me, and other desperate unemployed people like me, who don’t really want to work at bars but are forced to do so by an unforgiving job market.
You could make that case if you want, but I wouldn’t. I don’t think the state needs to cater to my needs quite to that extent. If bars were exempted from the ban, this law would still ensure that there are plenty of smoke-free workplaces for me, or anyone else, to work at. No one is really “forced” to work at a bar; if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. So I just don’t see why the desires of the few should outweigh the desires of the many in this case.
In the case of bars, I say the majority should rule. If people want to kill themselves slowly, in public, that should be their right, as long as they’re not doing it in a fashion that harms other people who are actually making an effort to be stay healthy.
We have the right to do stupid things to ourselves. This is America, dammit.