I wondered just how long it would be before the other shoe dropped in the ongoing and unnecessary soap opera of Columbia’s smoking ban. In addition to being an unwarranted attack on both individual and property rights, it is now apparent that this prohibition has also added to the city’s economic burden.
Considerably ahead of the recent study by Michael Pakko, a research economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, local media reported that City Manager Bill Watkins had raised a red flag, citing decreasing revenues caused by a significant shortfall in tax receipts. The most disturbing aspect of this dilemma is that it required an outside agency to discover the painfully obvious.
As noted in this study covering six prior years, monthly sales and tax revenues generated by bars and restaurants sustained a 5 percent decrease from Jan. 9 through July 2007 — coincident to imposition of the ban. While some may question either the accuracy or the intent of the aforementioned report, the closing of a number of these establishments and subsequent jobs lost as well as a decrease in need for employees in those with declining business show the economy has taken a definite hit.
We have seen the letters and heard the comments of the anti-tobacco zealotry — all extolling the virtues of the now pristine atmosphere of our eateries and watering holes as they no longer are exposed to the habits of the social pariahs who smoke. Additionally, there has been a steady steam of less-than-informed opinion to the effect that by rendering these establishments smoke-free, business has surely prospered — a conclusion which ignores reality.
Finally, Mayor Darwin Hindman, who mans the pointy end of the anti-smoking spear, attempts to justify the ban as a government mandate to oversee the city’s health and welfare, ignoring the damage to the economy and individual and property rights. While I do not question the motives of the mayor or of the anti-tobacco proponents, I challenge their judgment as well as the legality and morality of their stand.
I understand the mayor’s personal aversion to smoking and agree, in part, that he and the City Council are responsible for our health and welfare. But that responsibility does not include usurping the rights of legitimate business and its customers. No one argues the point that smoking is harmful or disagrees with my grandmother, “a cigarette is a cylinder with fire at one end and a fool at the other.” However, so long as tobacco is a legally produced, sold and taxed product, government does not enjoy the option of socially engineering away individual rights.
As a nonsmoker, I empathize with the smoke-free faction. Those with allergies, health considerations or abhorrence of tobacco smoke are likewise entitled to enjoy a smoke-free environment. However, that choice was available to them before imposition of the smoking ban. As one who dines out frequently, I know there were sufficient non-smoking establishments in this city to provide smoke-free dining and employment for those opposed.
Personal likes and dislikes notwithstanding, this dilemma must be resolved in the marketplace. There can be no justification for banning an otherwise legal activity in a private business, workplace or dwelling.
This issue is between business and customers, as the owner of any establishment operates at the sufferance of his patrons. When an entrepreneur determines, as several did, that the business will be improved by going smoke-free, he or she has that choice. Conversely, if the same business will suffer from banning smoking, that option is available. This is merely an economic example of supply and demand — the customer holding the upper hand.
In the final analysis, though, the community is better served by a bit of tolerance from both factions. Pierre Bale, a 16th century cleric, offered, “It is tolerance that is the source of peace and intolerance the source of disorder and squabbling.”
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident who can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.