Special Report

Freedom Is in the Air (cough)

Washington, D.C., of all places, discovers its inner Ayn Rand to defeat a slide into Bloombergism.

By 12.9.03

WASHINGTON -- Mayor Bloomberg's New York is only the most prominent example of a city recently fallen victim to a bad idea whose time has come: smoking bans in bars and restaurants. Bans have been imposed statewide in California, Florida, and Delaware, and even deep in tobacco country, in Lexington, Kentucky. This year, the movement came to Washington, D.C. Backed by a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the antismoking activists of Smokefree D.C. began lobbying the city council. Surely a well-funded effort to extend the ban to the nation's health conscious capital couldn't fail.

Or could it? On Wednesday, December 3, the D.C. city council held hearings on the Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2003, which would ban smoking in all D.C. bars and restaurants. Smokefree D.C. brought out former surgeon general David Satcher, a host of other public health professionals, and an assortment of college activists fighting for their God-given right to go clubbing without getting smoke in their hair. And an amazing thing happened: the council pushed back. Councilmember Carol Schwartz (R.-at large), who chaired the hearing, formerly the very model of a midatlantic moderate, suddenly discovered her inner Ayn Rand.

Schwartz repeatedly said that workers had a choice about whether to take jobs in bars that allow smoking. At one point, the owner of the nightclub Mirage averred that pregnant women had no place in smoke-filled bars, Schwartz cut him short, saying that it was up to the woman herself to make that choice. When antismoking activists claimed that most bar patrons wanted smoke-free environments, she told them to "put your money where your mouth is" -- go into business themselves and capitalize on that demand. Toward the end of the day, Schwartz declared, "this is America" and that she didn't want to live in a country that watched over its citizens' diets and lifestyles in the name of public health.

On the eve of the hearing, Schwartz cut the legs out from under the would-be-banners, introducing a competing bill that would provide a tax break to bars and restaurants that decide to go smoke-free. With a majority of councilmembers signed on to her compromise bill, and with Mayor Anthony Williams announcing his opposition to a total ban, it looks like the Smokefree Workplaces Act has been cremated.

Readers needn't like secondhand smoke to cheer that result. They simply have to resist the notion that adult Americans can't be trusted to weigh the risks of their lifestyle choices themselves -- a notion far more noxious than cigarette smoke. The epidemiological evidence shows that secondhand smoke is, at worst, a minor health risk. And it's a risk that's easily avoided: Smokefree D.C. published a list of over 260 smokefree restaurants, coffeeshops, and bars in the D.C. area. But the fact that workers and patrons have a choice was offensive to the antismoking activists, who, like Mencken's Puritans, are haunted by the notion that someone, somewhere is having fun.

Ideally, Schwartz's tax-breaks-for-smokefree-bars proposal would also be a nonstarter. The government has no business using the tax code as a vehicle for social engineering, and it ought not to put its thumb on the scale when a bar or restaurant owner is weighing the benefits of staying smoke friendly or going smoke-free. But unlike the Smokefree Workplaces Act, the tax credit bill doesn't coerce smoke-free uniformity. For the near future at least, smoking in bars will remain legal in D.C.

Given national political trends, that's an astounding result. The antismoking brigades came to one of the most pro-regulatory jurisdictions in America. They had cash to burn and the full force of the public health establishment behind them. And they lost. Is it possible -- just possible -- that people are getting tired of this nonsense?

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About the Author

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.