Economics Says Wilmette Smoking Ban Is Bad Idea

Published November 11, 2003

Many people don’t like the smell of cigarette smoke, and they seem to believe it is therefore appropriate and necessary that smoking be banned in places they like to be. Typical is a ban on smoking in nearly all public places, including restaurants, being debated by the village board of my hometown of Wilmette, Illinois.

Much is being said and written about the economic effects of a smoking ban. I am suspicious of studies that look at sales tax revenue to measure the effects. As an economist, I have seen poorly designed studies that do not control for other influences.

It must also be recognized that not everyone is annoyed by tobacco smoke, nor are nonsmokers necessarily exposed to smoke whenever a smoker lights up. In those cases, a ban on smoking imposes a loss on the smoker that is not offset by a corresponding gain on the part of bystanders. In many cases, no one benefits; it is all cost and no gain.

How many instances of each kind of loss are there? Are the overall gains from a smoking ban greater than the losses, including the cost of a government intrusion in a voluntary and essentially private form of conduct? We simply do not know. But we do know that ignorance of the facts is never a good basis for policy.

Next door to Wilmette is Skokie, home to one of the country’s most stringent smoking bans. This may give Wilmette an economic advantage that a smoking ban would nullify. Given that business locations in the two communities have high elasticities of substitution, differences in potential for government intrusions could result in businesses and residents moving to the more accommodating environment.

I call this the “fighter pilot strategy.” When flying in formation and discovering that a heat-seeking missile is closing in, the winning strategy is to get on the radio and order “afterburners on” … and then quickly turn yours off. Let’s let Skokie bear the consequences of its ill-considered smoking ban.

The issue, in my opinion, turns on what the Wilmette Village Board thinks of the citizens. If the Board believes the citizens are inept at dealing with minor annoyances, then the ban will be enacted. On the other hand, if the Board has some respect for citizens and concludes they are capable of successfully dealing with small nuisances, the ban will be rejected.

Who knows? The Board’s action might also affect the chances of their being reelected.

Jim Johnston is an economist and director and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].