Smoking ban critics are not convincing enough

Saturday, February 16, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

Quickly now: What do Olathe, Kan., the state of Illinois and the nation of France have in common with Columbia?

Got it in one, I’ll bet. All these enlightened entities enjoy the health benefits and the moral high ground of smoking bans. So do 21 other states in the union (not Missouri, of course).

We’re riding the tide of history here, folks. This is no time to turn back the clock and give in to the flawed arguments of self-styled libertarians and wolf-crying bar owners. The Columbia City Council should stick to its nonsmoking guns and resist calls, including those from the septuagenarian sage at that other newspaper, to repeal the smoking ban or put it to a public vote.

No, I’m not persuaded by the “evidence” that made the front pages when a researcher who testified against the ban in the first place announced that it accounts for a statistically significant decrease in revenue in our bars and restaurants. I don’t question either the man’s honesty or his regression analysis, but I remember the axiom that the most sophisticated statistics can only test the researcher’s assumptions. His seem pretty clear.

And I’m not persuaded by the argument, made by a distinguished contributor to these very pages, that the issue here is individual freedom. Nobody’s saying — though it would be a healthier world if somebody could — that smoking is forbidden. Our ordinance just says that you mustn’t smoke within the confines of Columbia’s eating and drinking establishments.

A fellow named Leon Vinci, the public health director of Johnson County, Kan., wrote an essay for the Kansas City Star in which he explained the issue more authoritatively than I can:

“Secondhand smoke contains 4,000 chemicals, including more than 60 cancer-causing substances. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease and cancer. Secondhand smoke kills.

“Restricting smoking in public places is first and foremost a public health issue, not a business-rights issue. Businesses must seek licensure and must conform to regulations for the welfare of the public and employees. Smoking in public places and at work ceases to be a personal right when it harms other people.”

The Missourian regularly publishes the results of the health inspections of restaurants. The principle that underlies those inspections, “regulations for the welfare of the public ...,” is exactly the principle that justifies the smoking ban. Just as the rules that govern health inspections should not be subject to referendum, neither should the health regulation that governs smoking.

As for the alleged loss of business attributable to the no-smoking ordinance, I’m skeptical. The economy is turning sour. Except for a fortunate few, our disposable income is shrinking. Forced to choose between a few beers after work and a tank of gas to get to work, what are you going to decide? Running a bar or restaurant has always been a dicey proposition. In times like these, it gets even tougher, smoke-filled or smoke-free.

The smoking ban is one time our elected leaders have led in the right direction. We should only hope they’ll be as foresighted on other critical issues.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Max Drown February 16, 2008 | 3:55 p.m.

Very well said. I couldn't agree more. I especially like this line, "Smoking in public places and at work ceases to be a personal right when it harms other people."

(Report Comment)
Bill Hannegan February 16, 2008 | 9:12 p.m.

So Joe Thiel and Betty Hamilton are liars or fools! I think these two know the bar business pretty well.

Let me suggest painless alternative to a smoking ban. Columbia lawmakers could simply require venues that allow smoking to purify their air 15 times or more per hour thru both electronic and HEPA air filtration machines separate from the establishment's regular HVAC system as air filtration engineers recommend. Such air purification would not only remove tobacco smoke, but also viruses, bacteria, chemicals, pollen, dust, mold, fungi and, most importantly, radon decay products, which the EPA claims causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year, seven times more than secondhand smoke is reputed to cause. Commercial and industrial air filtration machines are affordable and readily available. Venues that allow smoking could be retrofitted without expensive ductwork or other construction costs. Air filtration machines currently protect Missouri welders from much more dangerous smoke to OSHA safety standards, they can also protect Columbia bartenders from stray tobacco smoke.

The CDC even recommends that air filtration systems be installed in buildings as a way of protecting workers from airborne chemical, biological or chemical attacks:

Furthermore, an air filtration solution to the secondhand smoke problem would not displace smokers to poorly ventilated private homes and cars. Research has shown that this displacement actually causes the secondhand smoke exposure levels of children to rise in communities in which a smoking ban has been imposed.

(Report Comment)

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