Wilmette Smoking Ban Is Bad Policy

Published December 1, 2003

A hundred years ago Kin Hubbard, a newspaper columnist in Indianapolis, observed that “it ain’t what we do not know that hurts us so much; it is what we know that just ain’t so.” I submit that is exactly the case with respect to the smoking ban recently adopted in my hometown, Wilmette, Illinois.

Secondhand Smoke

In an important study whose results were released on May 17 by the British Medical Journal, two epidemiologists, James Enstrom at UCLA and Geoffrey Kabat at the State University of New York, analyzed American Cancer Society (ACS) data and reported that “no significant associations were found for current or former exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.”

The ACS had collected data from a broad cross-section of more than 100,000 Californians for 38 years from 1959 through 1997. The sample was divided between those who were married to smokers and those who were married to nonsmokers. This home-based smoking environment leads to more exposure than an occasional meal in a restaurant where smoking is permitted.

“The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality,” wrote Enstrom and Kabat, although they do not rule out the possibility of a small effect. They report “the association between tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.

“It is generally considered that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke is roughly equivalent to smoking one cigarette per day,” according to Enstrom and Kabat. “If so, a small increase in lung cancer is possible, but the commonly reported 30 percent increase in heart disease risk–the purported cause of almost all the deaths attributed to secondhand smoke–is highly implausible.”

While secondhand smoke may not be significantly harmful to health, it is an annoyance to some. But there are a lot of annoyances–aircraft noise, discarded chewing gum, fast food, unwanted e-mail, peanut allergy to mention a few–and generally they do not demand government involvement.

Many annoyances can be handled just by informing the offender that the behavior is making others uncomfortable. My favorite approach is to offer the smoker a free dessert if he or she stops smoking. I call it my let-them-eat-cake strategy. It depends on the good will of the smoker. I like to think most people are considerate and will respond in a positive way to a request.

It must also be recognized that not all are annoyed by tobacco smoke. In those cases, the loss to the smoker from causing him or her to stop is not offset by a corresponding gain on the part of bystanders. Are the overall gains from a smoking ban greater than the losses, including the government intrusion? We simply do not know. But we do know that ignorance of the facts is never a good basis for policy.

Economics of a Ban

I am suspicious of studies that look at sales tax revenue to measure the economic effects of a smoking ban. As an economist I have seen poorly designed studies that do not control for other factors.

In the case of Wilmette, we had an opportunity created by the ban implemented earlier by Skokie. Business locations have high elasticities of substitution, and differences in the potential for government intrusion result in businesses locating in more hospitable environments. I call it 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.

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

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