Please Don’t Poop in My Salad

Published February 13, 2003

Anti-smoking advocates sure know how to hurl insults at those who defend smokers’ rights. In response to an opinion piece of mine that ran recently in a daily newspaper, I received an email from “Harry” in Milwaukee saying if “Bast promises not to smoke within ten feet of me, I promise not to poop on his salad bowl while he’s eating.” Only he didn’t say “poop.”

Thanks, Harry. I hope the guys you have lunch with know about your curious habit.

Defending smokers isn’t popular, but if you care about jobs, property rights, the rise of the Nanny State, and the use of junk science in public policy, you just can’t look the other way when smoker abuse occurs.

On January 7, opponents of legislation to ban smoking in Chicago’s restaurants and bars had a chance to testify at a hearing at City Hall. For the better part of a day, dozens of restauranteurs, bar owners and managers, waiters and waitresses, experts on ventilation, community leaders, and at least one public health expert testified that a ban is unwanted, unnecessary, would destroy jobs and hurt tourism, and would violate rights.

When it was over, Ald. Ed Smith, chairman of the Health Committee, told the Chicago Tribune, “there was nothing said in the hearing today that we had not heard all along. It’s the same old soup just warmed over.”

Ald. Smith apparently slept through some pretty compelling testimony.

For example, a Gallup poll was cited showing 52 percent of the public believes restaurants should set aside space for smokers, versus 44 percent that supports a ban. Support for a ban would have been even less if respondents were told restaurants already are required to make accommodations for nonsmokers, or that bans on smoking could cause the loss of jobs or closure of small businesses.

Nonsmokers who visit restaurants and bars are not complaining. The Public Health Department of the City of Chicago received just 16 complaints about cigarette smoke in restaurants and bars in all of 2001. If current accommodations are inadequate, why aren’t nonsmokers complaining?

A smoking ban would have a severe negative effect on local businesses. Restaurant and bar owners testified that smokers spend more, on average, than nonsmokers on alcohol, food, and tips. Consequently, a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars would reduce business and sales by 50 percent or more.

Chicago-area restaurants, bars, and hotels employ more than 118,000 people (with wages of more than $1.85 billion). A smoking ban would mean fewer jobs, less tourism, and the loss of millions of dollars in sales and property taxes.

Bar and restaurant owners stressed the fact that no one is forced to eat or work at establishments that allow smoking. Bars and restaurants are privately owned businesses that earn a profit by giving customers what they want. As demand grows for smoke-free entertainment, the owners of these establishments will deliver it; indeed, many already do. Since they own the property, their right to set the rules of conduct concerning guests should be respected.

Science writer Michael Fumento testified how the threat of secondhand smoke has been greatly exaggerated. Claims that secondhand smoke causes as many as 65,000 early deaths in the U.S. each year have been debunked as “junk science.” Studies by the Congressional Research Service, World Health Organization, and U.S. Department of Energy all failed to find secondhand smoke to be a significant health risk. In 1998, a U.S. District Court ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to classify secondhand smoke as a known human carcinogen.

Why, then, is Chicago’s City Council debating a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants when the public doesn’t want it, the public health benefits would be nonexistent, and the costs in terms of jobs and our rights would be so heavy? Part of the answer lies in the corps of tax-financed professional anti-smoking activists. Lobbying for this legislation is how they earn a paycheck.

But I think there’s another reason. There are far more bars and restaurants in Chicago than there are cops to enforce a smoking ban. Deciding which establishments to ticket would provide many opportunities for corruption, favoritism, and harassment. I think Chicago’s crafty aldermen are looking for another way to shake down bar and restaurant owners, what we Chicagoans call “payola.”

With 645 murders in 2002, Chicago barely missed repeating its title as “murder capital of the U.S.” Diverting scarce law enforcement resources from fighting real crime to harassing smokers just so some alderman can line his pockets with bribes is disgusting, irresponsible, and could be downright deadly.

And that, Harry, is why I defend smokers’ rights.

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Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected].

For further information, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447 or [email protected]