Following is a letter I sent today to the mayor and members of the City Council of Columbus, Indiana.
I have not seen a copy yet of the smoking ban ordinance that Mayor Armstrong plans to introduce to the City Council on September 21, but I am strongly opposed to any measure such as this which would dictate to private business owners how they may conduct business on their own property. Trying to cast a private business as a "public place" may try to put this in a different light, but it comes down to the same thing.
I encourage local government officials to seek out and find effective non-statutory means of promoting healthy individual and business choices.
By way of background, I am a non-smoker and I prefer to avoid entering and staying in situations where I am breathing significant second-hand smoke. Therefore I seldom frequent businesses in which smoking is prevalent, and I choose to work for an employer who voluntarily prohibits smoking on the premises, except in designated areas. The company for which I work has made this decision because they perceive it is a wise business decision for them.
I also favor no-smoking policies in government buildings, where there is no private competition available for the services which are offered there.
However, government regulation of smoking in private businesses unnecessarily forsakes the American tradition of providing the least intrusive government that serves the best interest of all its citizens. Here we are talking about a local government taking the money these very business people are forced to provide to support that government, and then wanting to turn right around and use their own money against them to force them to run their businesses in a different way than the way they perceive to be best. That just doesn't sound have a "land of the free" ring to it to me.
As in many other realms, the free market is effective and sufficient for regulating smoking in this situation. If having a smoking section is good for business, then the business owner should have the freedom to offer that situation. Customers (and employees) who disagree are free to vote with their feet. If there are enough of them, competition for customers and employees will show that the non-smoking establishments do better than businesses which permit smoking, and the enlightened business owner can choose to adjust his business strategy or not.
The specific fallacy which I have not seen much addressed thus far in the public debate is that employees are somehow helpless victims of an employer who chooses to offer a choice of smoking in his business. It is disingenuous to claim that "employees deserve a healthy work environment." While no employer should negligently permit unnecessary risks in the workplace, it is a fact of life that every job carries with it intrinsic hazards, some more so than others. The compensation for working in that workplace must implicitly take those hazards into account, or the employer would not be able to hire any employees who were willing to subject themselves to the risks inherent in that workplace.
For example, the general public understands that those who choose to work in such occupations as the armed forces, firefighting, law enforcement, mining, or offshore drilling voluntarily assume greater risks to life and health as a part of their job than those who choose many other occupations, for example as an office worker. Other than the military, nearly every other occupation in our country permits each employee to evaluate on a daily basis whether he considers the benefits of his job (e.g., the pay) to outweigh the costs, including the health risks.
Indentured servanthood has been gone for a long time in our society. Nearly everyone who works in our country, including the Columbus and Bartholomew County area, has the daily freedom to leave a job whenever he comes to believe that the risks outweigh the benefits for him. I understand there are many compelling reasons for wanting to stay in a long-held job, including accrued vacation and benefits, but those must all simply enter into the daily cost-benefit analysis.
I grew up on a hog farm in nearby Rush County, so that brings an illustration to mind. We occasionally shook our heads in near-incredulity to hear the stories of city folk who, longing for a nice place in the country, knowingly selected property near a hog confinement operation for their new residence. Then, after a period of enduring the odors to which they had knowingly subjected themselves, they took the hog farmer to court to protest the very smells that had been there all along, usually since long before they ever decided to place themselves in that environment.
This is the same sort of pomposity I see in an employee (or a well-intentioned public servant who wishes to intervene on his behalf in exchange for a vote in the next election) who knowingly hires into a smoking environment, and then suddenly decides that he has a right to demand the employer provide him a different environment, rather than just voting with his feet and selling his services to someone else who will provide him a work environment with a cost-benefit ratio more to his liking.
Another option open to any employee is to politely negotiate with the employer before deciding to leave. Perhaps faced with losing one or more valued and experienced employees, some employers would suddenly find it in their own enlightened self-interest to voluntarily institute a no-smoking policy for the business. If not, asking the question has at least helped to clarify whether the employer with these priorities is really the one for whom you wish to work anyway.
One of the sound bites playing on WCSI radio today in the story on the August 30 public forum was positively Orwellian. I did not hear who the man speaking was, but he said something to the effect that if the taxpaying members of the community were not voluntarily making "good" health choices (as he defines "good"), then he sees government's role as stepping in and forcing them to do so. This flies in the face of those like me who see one of government's primary roles as preserving the rights of liberty and private property.
It reminds me of Benjamin Franklin's comment, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." In this case, those giving up essential liberty are those seeking a little temporary safety from tobacco smoke by using the force of government to compel their neighbors to give up a measure of liberty.
While I am no fan of second-hand smoke, the loss of liberty, and the precedent it sets for further losses in the future for other perceived "public goods", is just not worth it.