Scoppe: The myth of business-busting no-smoking laws

Associate EditorAugust 18, 2013 

Cindi Ross Scoppe

— AS MORE AND more of the nation has acted to protect employees from being poisoned on the job, our Legislature has steadfastly refused to adopt smoke-free workplace laws. Lawmakers argue that whether to ban smoking should be left to business owners — and in particular bar and restaurant owners, since most other businesses already ban smoking — because 1) it just should be and 2) a ban will cost bars and restaurants money.

The first is a philosophical argument, and all we can do is keep making the logical argument about rights vs. responsibilities and the state’s traditional role in ensuring a minimal level of workplace safety.

The second, however, is an empirical argument. One based on data that show what happens when nations and states and communities outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants.

And a study published in the Aug. 1 issue of the Centers for Disease Control’s scientific journal Preventing Chronic Disease has knocked the wind out of the empirical argument against a ban.

Well, whatever wind it had in it.

As the study notes, at least 20 other studies over the past two decades all demonstrated that smoke-free laws “have no adverse effects on the economic performance of restaurants or bars.” But this was the largest to date, spanning 11 years and covering 216 cities and counties that have banned smoking in seven states.

Among those states was South Carolina, where seven counties and 49 cities and towns now have partial or complete bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, and where CDC polling found that half the population reported being exposed to secondhand smoking in the previous week, more than in 36 of the states.

The questions examined by the researchers with N.C.-based RTI International were: What happens to bar and restaurant employment in communities that ban smoking, compared to employment in communities in the same state that do not ban smoking? And what happens to cigarette sales?

After reviewing quarterly employment and sales data and crunching the numbers, the answer was … nothing. No difference. Nada.

Except in West Virginia, where restaurant employment increased.

Now I would love for them to have found that cigarette sales plummeted, but the primary purpose of bar and restaurant smoking bans never has been to deter smoking; it’s to protect the health of employees, and of the population in general.

“Indeed,” the authors noted, “averting the adverse health consequences of secondhand smoke exposure among nonsmoking adults and children is the primary goal of any smoke-free policy. Comprehensive smoke-free laws that completely eliminate smoking in indoor public places and workplaces, including restaurants and bars, have been shown to reduce secondhand smoke exposure among nonsmoking hospitality workers and the general population of nonsmokers. Such laws have also been shown to reduce sensory and respiratory symptoms and improve lung function in nonsmoking hospitality workers, help workers who smoke to quit, and may reduce smoking initiation among youth.”

The authors did not try to extrapolate their conclusions to cover all 21 states that lack statewide smoking bans. They concluded, quite simply, that “smoke-free laws did not have an adverse economic impact on restaurants or bars in any of the states studied” and that “we would not expect a statewide smoke-free law in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, or West Virginia to have an adverse economic impact on restaurants or bars in those states.”

A modest conclusion. But a sufficient conclusion. One that leaves dangerous-workplace advocates in our state with a single argument: It’s none of the government’s business.

Funny, I don’t recall hearing them say it’s none of the government’s business whether people do other legal things in bars and restaurants. Like having sex. A legal activity that the government has decided to prohibit in bars, restaurants and other privately owned businesses that have decided to act as public places.

And thank goodness. As it should.

The government, and specifically our Legislature, also should ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Not so much to protect patrons — although I certainly appreciate the protection that Columbia and Richland County have afforded me when I eat out — but to protect workers.

That’s no different than government protecting workers by prohibiting their employers from locking them inside the building with no means of escape. Or requiring employers to provide bathrooms and drinking water for employees. Or requiring them to “monitor and measure an employee’s exposure to potentially toxic materials or harmful physical agents,” to let the employees monitor the measuring and to give employees access to the records.

Funny thing is, many of those “potentially toxic materials” that the government already restricts in workplaces are far less dangerous than the toxic cocktail of disease-inducing chemicals that make up cigarette smoke. That cocktail, by the way, results in bar and restaurant employees having a 50 percent greater risk of cancer than the general population.

Of note: Several S.C. restaurants are featured in the CDC’s video series about the health and economic impact of banning smoking.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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