California Living: Snuff Out That Cigarette, Please

California is a political trend-setter. From cutting property taxes to banning leaf blowers, from eliminating affirmative action to enacting term limits, from limiting public services for illegal immigrants to ending bilingual education, the Golden State leads the way.

Now it's taken the lead on another big issue: smoking. AB 13, which took effect Jan. 1, bans smoking in virtually all indoor public places, including bars.

While California had banned smoking in restaurants, factories, offices, and other enclosed workplaces since 1995, the law contained an exemption for bars and restaurants, in the hope that sophisticated ventilation systems could be devised. But that didn't happen. And no-smoking sections in bars and restaurants aren't a solution, since smoke respects no boundaries.

'A toxic waste dump'

There is clear justification for California's ban on public indoor smoking. Second-hand smoke is the nation's third-leading preventable cause of death. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, calls the cigarette "a toxic waste dump on fire." California's no-smoking law moves the nation a step closer to the goal of a smoke-free society.

Of course, many people oppose the California ban. Thomas Humber, president of the National Smokers Alliance, says, "What you've got in California again is Prohibition."

But that's a poor analogy. Prohibition banned the consumption of liquor - anywhere. The California law only outlaws public indoor smoking. No one will be arrested for smoking on the street or at home.

A better comparison is the nation's crackdown on drunk driving. Laws allow drinking - but not while driving. Both drunk driving and public indoor smoking endanger the public welfare. Pro-smoking activists argue that "smokers have rights, too." And that's true - as long as they don't injure others.

Smokers find no solace in democratic theory. While James Madison warned of the dangers of majority tyranny, he also argued that majority rule was the essence of democracy. Permitting public indoor smoking allows the minority to rule, harming the majority. And smokers are a distinct minority. Only 25 percent of the nation's adults are smokers; in California, it's 18 percent. Further, 70 percent of smokers say they'd like to kick the habit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recently, while visiting Washington, I went to a restaurant with a friend, a free-market economist. I complained about the cloud of smoke surrounding us. My friend responded that putting up with smoke is "the price of going out in public."

This perspective seems to hold that public places are cesspools, sinking to the lowest common denominator. Big cities used to turn a blind eye to violations of common space - panhandling, littering, graffiti, and public urination. Now, big-city police departments recognize that violations of public areas are a precursor to community deterioration. Similarly, banning smoking in bars and restaurants is part of a campaign to reestablish the civilized control of public space.

My free-market friend said private businesses have rights and shouldn't be forced to ban smoking. But private property rights aren't inalienable. Private businesses don't have the right to ignore the minimum wage or health and safety regulations. Since the New Deal, the federal government has regulated private businesses in order to serve the public welfare.

My economist friend also asserted that businesses should be financially compensated if they are forced to ban smoking. This is illogical. Bar and restaurant owners who allow smoking are making a foolish business decision. There are three times as many nonsmokers in the US as smokers. Many nonsmokers stay away because they hate smoke.

A study by the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California at San Francisco compared sales tax revenues in municipalities with and without smoke-free ordinances - and found no difference. A Massachusetts survey showed that smoke-free laws would increase bar patronage by nonsmokers.

San Luis Obispo's fresh air

In 1990, my adopted hometown of San Luis Obispo, Calif., became the nation's first community to ban all public indoor smoking. Nonsmokers have the right to go to any bar or restaurant in town and not be assaulted by noxious fumes. Tourists love the smoke-free environment. Enforcement problems are nonexistent. And the local bar and restaurant trade is booming.

While California's outdoor air may be of poor quality, it's taken a dramatic step to safeguard the quality of indoor air. Other states should do the same.

* Ted Rueter is a freelance writer in San Luis Obispo, Calif., who enjoys eating in his city's smoke-free restaurants.

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