Without a doubt, compelling arguments can be made against smoking and its negative health effects. Obviously, that’s just what the proponents of HB2 – the statewide smoking ban bill – want you to think about.
The bill moved forward March 3 in the House Health Committee, clearing the first hurdle towards making its way to the House floor. Personal testimonies of pain and suffering from debilitating diseases have been the driving force of getting this bill passed, clouding the core arguments of the proper role of government with emotion.
At the committee meeting, it was a line-up of lawmakers relaying their losses and personal experiences attributed to smoking. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson) said her brother passed away from lung cancer; Rep. Pearl Floyd-Burris (R-Gaston) spoke about her years of working with cancer patients; and the widow of former Insurance Commissioner Jim Long said that her husband’s addiction to cigarettes more than likely was a contributing factor in the stroke that recently took his life.
While these are all emotional stories of loss and suffering regarding the critical health effects of smoking, they do not merit the foundation of the bill – regulating where people can smoke. Rather, the clear impetus of the proponents’ arguments should point to the elimination of cigarettes altogether.
Why is this group of legislators considering a ban on indoor smoking if the act of smoking itself is so bad for our state? If smoking kills people, as they argue, don’t the legislators have an obligation to protect us from ourselves and our addictions?
That is not what these lawmakers want you to think about. The bill is about regulating where people are allowed to smoke. So until someone decides to match their actions and words, let’s have a debate on the bill and not spend time on personal reflections. No one is going to debate the loss of a loved one to lung cancer doesn’t impact one’s life, but that sadly is not what the grounds of this bill is about.
Smoking is a legal activity. Therefore, the debate on the bill should be confined to whether government is permitted to regulate legal activities versus what a business decides to allow on its own property. By opening up this door, does that mean the state is going to step in and tell a business how it must operate? Or, is the state going to allow, with proper notice, individual businesses to set their own smoking policy and let the market decide how they should operate?
To that end, I want to ask smoking ban supporters a few questions regarding the necessity of this legislation:
1. What percentage of non-bar or restaurant "workplaces" currently allow smoking and how many workers are actually being exposed to second-hand smoke?
One of the supposed arguments for the bill is that “workers” are being involuntarily exposed to second-hand smoke and government needs to protect them. I challenge those supporters to present evidence of this occurring rather than conjecture. The actual number of “workplaces” allowing smoking, I imagine, be very few. It’s not like the workers at IBM or some other corporate setting are sitting in their cubicles puffing away all day. Factory workers in a textile mill aren’t lighting up as they work the assembly line. Most businesses have banned indoor smoking already, making this bill irrelevant. This provision seems to be a solution in search of a problem.
2. How many bars or restaurants have already gone totally smoke-free?
A recent survey by Smoke-Free Mecklenburg found that 60 to 65 percent of restaurants in the county were non-smoking. The Haywood County Health Department has compiled a list of more than 80 restaurants in the county (pop. 55,000) that do not allow smoking. Every day more and more restaurants are reacting to the will of its customers and converting to non-smoking and more new restaurants are opening up as completely smoke free. The market is working. Seventy-seven percent of the people in North Carolina do not smoke. Imagine if a similar percentage were vegetarians; don’t you think restaurants would change or new restaurants would open to cater to their wishes? The same applies to a smoking policy.
3. What is the harm of allowing people, who do not mind being exposed to smoke, to smoke at their own consent?
If a person agrees to enter an establishment that clearly posts on its entrance that smoking is allowed, why should the government stop them? The consumer then understands and consents to the risk they are taking. Everyone is clearly aware of the health effects of smoking and second-hand smoke, but some make an informed decision to engage in the behavior anyway; why should the government stop them? People engage in all kinds of risky activities and professions every day: skydiving, coal mining or crab fishing just to name a few. Many would consider driving a car to be a dangerous activity, yet it is permitted by government. Why should smoking or exposure to smoke be any different?
If a business wishes to operate and cater to a small minority of people who all agree and consent to being exposed to second-hand smoke, why should it not be allowed? That business is free to make a choice in how it should operate. That business’ success or failure will be determined based on how best it caters to its customers. If it finds a clientele that wishes to be exposed to smoke and that business can prosper, why should government stand in the way?
Proponents of the smoking bill are not addressing the merits of their bill or the rational arguments to the proper role of government. Rather, they’d like to turn the debate to the emotional issue of smoking and the health effects it causes. This bill is clearly about government regulating the activity of private businesses to engage in a legal activity. The arguments heard in committee on March 3 were more suited for a debate on making cigarettes illegal, not on regulating business activity.