Freedom in flames

The resolution of the smoking ban argument can be realized through the market

Recently, I happened to be involved in a public debate about the possibility of Lebanon soon introducing a smoking ban, along the lines of similar interdictions in Syria and Turkey. What most irritated anti-smoking activists was my proposal to allow for choice in certain types of facilities, with the market determining behavior. The outrage said a great deal about the mood driving a smoking ban law in Lebanon, and outside.

 The proposal was fairly benign. A ban could be made complete in most places, including ministries and private offices, but remain optional in restaurants, cafés, and bars. The reality of a ban, however, would allow owners of leisure establishments to declare them smoke-free environments, even brand them as such, without clients being able to dispute this. In turn, other establishments could allow smoking. The market would arrive at some equilibrium, with both sides satisfied.   

Rejection of these kinds of proposals generally revolves around three arguments. First, that the freedom of choice, as the National Tobacco Control Program put it in a letter sent in retort to my argument, “ends where my nose begins.” Tobacco kills, the writer reminded us, and exposing people to second-hand smoke endangers them: “Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the world, as well as in Lebanon, and hence should always be considered a public health priority.”

 A second common argument is that if restaurant, bar, and café owners were offered a choice, they would opt to allow smoking and, therefore, everything would remain the same. The third argument is more philosophical, though it is closely related to the first. Smokers and non-smokers don’t have the same freedom to choose. Because smokers harm others, their freedom to smoke is immoral. Consequently, anti-smoking activists are justified in imposing a total ban on smoking, except for outdoor facilities where the risk is less.

In many respects these arguments miss the point, when they are not contradictory. Preventing individuals from absorbing second-hand tobacco smoke is defensible. But in what way does labeling establishments as smoking or non-smoking prevent this? If I hate cigarette smoke, I can go to a non-smoking restaurant or bar; if I want to smoke, I can go to a place that allows smoking. Restaurant and bar owners who don’t want people to smoke will be armed with an official ban allowing them to convert their facilities. Given the number of people who reacted with vehemence to my proposal, their clientele will be large.

 Which leads us to the second argument. Giving establishments a choice to be smoking or non-smoking might not preserve the status quo at all. As the author of the National Tobacco Control Program admitted, in glaring contradiction with his or her defense of the status quo argument: “The idea that businesses will suffer with a 100 percent ban is a myth. While not a single independent study has proved a smoking ban produced negative results for the economy, numerous studies in countries such as Italy, Ireland and Canada have shown that business on average remains the same or even increases with such smoking bans.”

 Precisely, and the same argument can be made for a partial ban. The reason is that there is high demand for non-smoking facilities, and owners of restaurants and bars will cater for this. With time, I predict the number of non-smoking facilities will rise. Why? Because non-smokers will gradually impose their will on smokers by refusing to go out with them to smoking establishments. After all, it’s easier to forego a cigarette than to forsake a friendship. The market will respond accordingly, but choice also means that smokers will still be able to find places to light up.   

 At the heart of the discussion is the purported moralism of the anti-smoking crusaders. The matter of choice disturbs them because, ultimately, there should be no choice on immoral action. You have no freedom to kill me, they insist, and they are right. But many things kill. Alcohol kills a tremendous number of people per year, as does coronary heart disease due to eating certain types of foods. Do you legislate all behavior that poses health risks? By creating spaces for those on both sides of the smoking divide, the market imposes a more sensible outcome.