Five Characters in Search of a Reason for New Orleans's Smoking Ban

New Orleans’s city council has unanimously approved a city-wide smoking ban in all bars and casinos, making it the latest big city to pass such a smoking ban without the courtesy of a popular vote. 

The ban itself, like the others that came in cities before it, is purported to promote the public welfare.  Non-smokers, government officials argue, have the right to have their lungs be unafflicted by dangerous secondhand smoke if they choose to visit or work in any establishment.  In the case of New Orleans, teary-eyed city councilman James Gray II read aloud the names of people he knew who died of lung cancer, which “convinced” lawmakers to approve the smoking ban. 

While we can all sympathize with Mr. Gray for his losses, we should also point out that knowing people who died of lung cancer does not mean that their having lung cancer was due to secondhand, or “passive,” smoke.  In fact, new evidence suggests that the link between passive smoke and lung cancer is negligible at best, so it’s altogether unlikely that their having lung cancer had anything to do with passive smoke inhalation. His impassioned plea is thus nullified, at least in the context of the stated reasoning for offering the smoking ban in the first place. 

A recent study, for example, detailed in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, followed 76,000 women and ultimately showed “no statistically significant relationship between lung cancer and exposure to passive smoke.”  That’s a pretty unambiguous and confident conclusion.

But old lies die hard, and never harder than old lies that the government has been fully invested in perpetuating and disseminating for decades.  The Centers for Disease Control, a government agency, still reports that nearly 3,400 people die each year from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke exposure.

Why such a glaring discrepancy?  In brief, the problem with such conclusions as the CDC’s is that they are predicated upon “case-control studies” which are widely known to suffer from “recall bias,” according to Daniel Fisher at Forbes.  That is, people with a disease are more likely to recall exposure to something that can be blamed for their condition.

In other words, the statistics supporting the CDC’s outlandish claim are conclusively tainted.

But some scientists are more honest about new findings.  According to Gerald Silvestri of the Medical University of South California, the study just “confirms what researchers already believed,” despite pervasive lies still told by the CDC.  Another researcher involved in the study took the honesty a step further, saying that “the strongest reason to avoid passive cigarette smoke is to change societal behavior: to not live in a society where smoking is the norm.”

And there at last, we reach the quick.  It’s not about secondhand smoke harming people.  Again, if it were, the reasoning for a smoking ban is largely unsupported by credible evidence and the efforts should be rescinded.  This is all about coerced behavior change and conformity to a government-approved lifestyle which is to be decided upon by our betters.

I understand that this is a topic that often transcends ideological positions.  After all, I’ve spoken with many conservatives and libertarians who’ve argued the merits of smoking bans, and usually when pressed, they’ll admit that they support them simply because they personally don’t like smelling the smoke, that their kids shouldn’t have to be exposed to it, or something along those lines.  And they then find themselves comfortably in league with leftist social engineers on this subject, arguing that because they don’t like it, no one should be able to do it in public place, and so forth.

This may be an unpleasant revelation for some, but this is a liberty issue in which there are only two sides: the side of liberty and the side which seeks to subvert it.

New Orleans is a very interesting arena for this dichotomy.  Let us first understand that the city itself is rich with history and there is much to see and do there.  But what you choose to do there has always been very much a function of a free choice, and the liberty therein.  For example, if you enjoy history and are there with your young children, you may visit Jackson Square, the excellent World War II museum, the Garden District, etc.  You would not take your young children to Bourbon Street visiting bar after smoky bar among the revelers who came to New Orleans for an entirely different purpose than you. 

Now, one may cast derisive judgment at the drunken revelers’ actions, or their ambition to visit for the purpose of such indulgences.  But their rights should be equally protected.  That is what liberty requires.  If, indeed, individual liberty is among the protections you claim to champion.     

Business owners in New Orleans certainly have always had the right to allow or not allow smoking in their establishments.  (Many that I’ve encountered in the French Quarter do not allow it.)  The individuals employed by these businesses likewise have a choice to either work or not work in these establishments.  The individuals patronizing these businesses also have a choice to either visit or not visit those establishments based upon their preference.  Who is lacking a choice in this matter?

An early twenty-something young woman tried to answer that question for me at a blackjack table at Harrah’s Casino near the French Quarter, just before the smoking ban was decided upon by seven city council members, absent the opinion of local business owners or a popular vote.

My wife and I visited New Orleans for a few days last month for a brief getaway, which we typically try to do once or twice a year.  While playing, I first overheard that New Orleans’s officials were mulling a smoking ban, just two days before it passed by decree of the city council.  “It’s just going to be decided by the city council.  People aren’t even gonna get a vote,” said a local player at the table, forlornly.

I explained to him that the city of Houston similarly passed such a law, and I agreed that such a decision should be left to a popular vote, and that the city’s businesses should have influence in such decision-making, especially for a city like New Orleans which relies so heavily on the bar and gambling industries.

“I think it’s a good idea,” the young twenty-something woman told me.  “I shouldn’t have to breathe in that awful stuff.  It’s about freedom and choice. And if someone smokes in here, I don’t have a choice but to breathe it.”

Those were her exact words. “It’s about freedom and choice.”

“It’s certainly about freedom and choice,” I responded.  “You were free to choose to walk into this casino, and you did, knowing that there’d be smoke.  What about the freedom for business owners to offer their products and services to clients who prefer to smoke?  What about the rights of the smokers who wish to have the freedom to choose to go to places where they can be free to smoke?”

“They’re free to go outside and smoke,” she said. 

“No,” I responded, “they wouldn’t have chosen to go outside to smoke.  They would be forced to do so based upon what you and the city council happen to think is good for them, without ever considering what smokers or the people of New Orleans want.  That’s not freedom.  Smokers and the businesses providing for them today would lack freedom in that scenario.”

An exceedingly nice septuagenarian woman on my right had been shaking her head up and down as I spoke, and said, “I agree 100 percent.  I do not smoke, and never have.  I choose to come to casinos a couple of times a year.  But it shouldn’t be the government’s place to tell businesses and people that they can’t do something that is totally legal.” 

The gentleman to my left, who appeared to be in his fifties, chimed in saying, “That’s right!  What’s the casino going to do, place a clear chip for all these smokers in here every ten minutes to hold their place as they go outside and smoke?  How much money would the casino lose?” he asked the young woman. 

“A lot, probably” she replied. 

“Yeah, a lot,” said the man.  “And who says it’s okay for the government to tell a business owner that he has to do something that the customers don’t want and gonna lose him money?” he asked emphatically.

“Well, it’s bad for you and people shouldn’t be doing it anyway, so maybe the government has to do that,” the young woman said, visibly uncomfortable but obviously not realizing that she’d completely abandoned her argument that smoking bans were about freedom while admitting that they are about coercion -- the opposite of freedom.   

No one at the table had been smoking up to this point.  But upon hearing her say this, the man to my left pulled a cigar out of his pocket and lit it proudly.  He said nothing more on the subject.  But the statement was there.  “This is America.  And you’re not going to tell me how to live.”

That young woman chose to leave the table.

There’s a lesson in that man’s statement.  A particularly important lesson to remember as the federal government seeks to regulate our consumption via the internet at a much larger scale.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.

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