A free-market alternative to banning smoking

Opinion

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By CARL NYBERG

Anti-smoking activists want smoking banned in restaurants. Restaurant and bar owners want to continue to allow smoking. Is there a free market solution to this conflict?

Anti-smoking activists claim they are motivated by health considerations. I suspect two other factors motivate them as much as health. They are motivated by aesthetics and by a desire to use government to impose their will on others (more on this later).

Restaurant and bar owners claim that banning smoking will reduce their business. Smokers bristle at public policy that seems to be more anti-smoker than anti-smoking. The most galling thing about the restaurant and bar owners is that they want to derive the economic benefits of smoking, but don't want to pay for the costs. Virtually no restaurant or bar owners provide health coverage for their employees. But even if they did, smoking related illnesses don't manifest themselves for years. Wouldn't any business owner be for something that was profitable?#34;even if only marginally so?#34;if she/he didn't have to pay the cost?

What's the free market solution? Restaurants and bars that want to allow smoking should be required to buy insurance that pays their employees if they develop smoking related illnesses in the future. If a former bar tender develops heart disease there would be a formula for quantifying how much working in a smoking environment increased her/his risk of developing heart disease. Let's say working in a smoking environment for ten years increased her/his risk by 20 percent. The former bar tender would receive a cash settlement in the amount of 20 percent of the typical cost of treating heart disease plus a pain suffering amount.

The cost of allowing smoking would then be passed to the owners and the patrons. People that want to socialize in a smoking bar would pay a premium.

One of the advantages to this solution is that it expands and contracts with the demand for smoking environments. If bars and restaurants that allow smoking are quite popular and profitable, more can buy smoking insurance until equilibrium is reached. As smoking becomes less (or more) popular the number of smoking establishments can adjust to meet demand.

Individual bars and restaurants would be clearly marked as "smoking allowed" and "smoking prohibited." Employees that suffer smoking related illnesses would be compensated.

I am concerned that this fight is one more example people being angry about something they can't quite explain, blaming a group of fellow human beings and then using government in a coercive manner against the group to whom they've transferred their anxiety.

Some people like to blame women that get abortions so they seek to make abortion illegal.

Some people like to blame gun owners so they seek to make legally owning firearms as onerous as possible.

Some people like to blame the '60s anti-war movement so they seek to support war whether it makes sense or not.

There are public policy issues in play; and some of them need to be discussed. But the nastiness of the discussion suggests there's something else at work here.

For specific public policy issues we should be identifying the larger goal and making policy consistent with the larger goal. Policies that seem to blame or punish some group should raise flags. Do the policies advocated fix a problem? Or do they primarily use government to mete payback for some grievance?

Also we should be asking ourselves, what is it about modernity that has so many people anxious and frankly angry.

Attack problems, not people.

What's the real problem with smoking in bars and restaurants? Is the ban just part of an incremental campaign to achieve prohibition on smoking? Should restaurant and bar owners compensate employees that develop smoking related illnesses?

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