Behind the Smokescreen

(Editor’s note: The following commentary was originally published July 3, 2007. It is being re-run in light of the Michigan Legislature’s recent passage of House Bill 4163.)

I am not a smoker, and I strongly dislike being around cigarette smoke. I do not allow others to smoke in my home, and I frequent restaurants with well-ventilated non-smoking sections. After hearing about the recently proposed smoking ban in Michigan, my acquaintances thought I would be ecstatic. They were dead wrong. Passage of the legislation would have terrifying effects on individual liberty, a value I hold higher than my personal preferences.

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Legislation introduced earlier this year — Senate Bill 109, Senate Bill 110 and House Bill 4163 — would prohibit smoking in restaurants, bars and other workplaces. At first glance, these bills may appeal to people who prefer to dine smoke free. Some argue that the bill benefits everyone because smoke-free environments are healthier than the alternative. But such arguments ignore the alarming reality lurking behind the proposed bills. A ban on smoking in private settings is an assault on the very foundation of a free society and a constitutionally protected private property right.

A free society guarantees a business owner the right to permit guests to smoke in his restaurant in the same way an individual has the right to permit visitors to smoke in his own home. Furthermore, those who do not wish to dine in the presence of smokers do not have to; they are free to eat somewhere else.

While no one can force an unwilling consumer to patronize a restaurant, consumers can persuade business owners to alter their establishments more to the consumer’s liking. That is the beauty of the free market. The very existence of a business depends on the support of its customers. Businesses that cater to their customers can flourish, while those that ignore their customers’ desires can fail. If a restaurant’s clientele prefers smoke-free dining, it is in the best interests of the business to consider this.

Business owners in Michigan and across the nation have done just that — many have made their establishments smoke free by choice. In fact, the Campaign for Smokefree Air (CSA), a major proponent of government-forced smoking bans, praises the Walt Disney Company for making all of its hotels non-smoking. They rightfully cite Disney’s decision as "a result of guests making their views and opinions heard." That’s right. Disney was not forced to do this by the threat of state coercion. The company wisely and freely chose to do so because that is what its customers wanted. Customers enforce their will on producers all the time in the free market with their dollars, not government force. Disney and the many establishments that have switched to non-smoking are proof that the market works. Thus, the CSA should be defending the free market, not attacking it.

Michigan business owners are worried about detriments to their establishments should the Legislature pass a ban in Michigan. Virginia Field, owner of the Town Bar in Jackson, told this writer that she fears that the bill’s passage "will hurt small places like ours." Given an already feeble business climate, Michigan’s legislators should endeavor to do away with regulations that negatively impact businesses.

Beyond her concern for her business, Field is worried that the ban would further encroach on the ability of private citizens to allow legal activities on their own property.

Field’s concerns should be echoed by every Michigan resident. Instead of pitting smokers against non-smokers and business owners against consumers, we need to see the bills for what they really are: an assault on the personal freedoms of all Michiganders.


Christina M. Kohn holds a B.A. in economics and history from Hillsdale College and was a summer 2006 intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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