I was wrong: about indoor smoking bans

Picking up the occasional series about being wrong, one of the recent things I was most dramatically wrong about is the trend towards banning smoking in indoor public places.


When I visited California for a conference in 2004, it was the first place I’d been to where bars weren’t smoky, because smoking in indoor public places had been banned a while earlier. As often happens, California wasn’t so much an outlier as a trailblazer, and these days almost everywhere I ever go has an indoor smoking ban. Washington’s was brought in by a very popular voter initiative a few months after I moved here.

Why I opposed it then

At the time, I was vehemently opposed to the ban. One reason was that it had a rather silly clause (which I still wish they’d remove) about smoking being banned even within 25 feet of of an entrance or window. If enforced zealously this would send many of Belltown’s and Pioneer Square’s bar patrons out into the street to smoke—clearly worse for public health than letting them smoke near a window—and enforced patchily as seems to be the reality, it’s another tool for harassing unfavoured bars, which this city has a bad track record of doing.

I also opposed smoking bans in general, because back in 2005 I still believed that the market could resolve a problem like this. I never smoked in bars, and neither did most of my friends, so we would clearly benefit from smoke-free bars. I believed, therefore, that as smoking got progressively less fashionable we would see bars start to go smoke-free as a way of drawing customers like us. I took the lack of smoke-free bars as a sign that there wasn’t actually enough interest in having them, and given that I found it hypocritical that so many people supported the ban.

I also argued that if we were really serious about improving public health, we should target emissions from road, air and sea transport. This I still believe, and there’s a lot we should be doing about them but aren’t, but it always was a bit silly seeing one of these things as a prerequisite for the other.

Why I support it now

Most powerfully, I’ve become a supporter of smoking bans because I’ve seen just how few people miss bars allowing smoking, even in a place where few [maybe even none?] of the bars had gone smokefree before being forced to. It was one of a cascade of realisations that’s made me a much weaker believer in efficient markets in general; specifically with this issue I think it’s a case of how a small number of holdouts can stop the vast majority from getting what they want.

There is another important argument, which at least one of my friends made at the time, but it took me a long time to accept it because I was so irritated by the pro-ban campaign that I dug my heels in. This is that as well as being a place where customers go by free choice, a bar is a workplace for a group of people, and the staff deserve a smoke free workplace. They spend longer hours in bars than almost all of their customers, and they have less choice of where to go, so even if some bars went smokefree, other bars’ staff would have no way to benefit from this. I’ve always believed that smokefree offices are a good thing, and in fact I’ve never worked in an office that allowed indoor smoking. Bar workers should be entitled to the same protections that office workers get, so these days I support smoking bans in public places for the sake of the people who work there.

Finally, the ban on smoking in public places does seem to have reduced the prevalence of smoking altogether (though I’m having a hard time finding an unbiased source to confirm that). In 2005, I didn’t see this as a good argument for the ban, because I felt that it was up to individuals to choose healthy or unhealthy behaviours, and it was at best unseemly for the state to push people one way. Helping people who wanted to quit always seemed appropriate, but not nudging them to make that decision. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how human behaviour is far from purely rational, and heavily socially scaffolded. This has left me feeling that the state has a much bigger role in bringing about conditions that support healthy choices, at least where the behaviour impacts other people such as smoking in a shared space.


As I mentioned above, I still think the 25 foot rule is stupid and problematic. I also don’t support banning tobacco altogether—if anything I think we need to get much less restrictive about other drugs for multiple reasons—and I strongly oppose banning smoking outdoors or in private spaces, because that’s a pure individual liberty issue and part of liberty is having the freedom to make bad decisions if they don’t impact other people. And if I had my way, bars would be allowed to have a smoking room as long as it’s isolated enough from the serving area and a smoke free room.

Oh, and people who throw cigarette butts on the ground as if they’ll magically disappear disgust me, but treating litter as if it magically disappears is hardly a pathology unique to smokers and it doesn’t justify collective punishment of all smokers.

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