Blowing Smoke Over Private Property Rights

Although popular in some quarters, government-imposed smoking prohibitions are an assault on private property rights. So it's good news that the Michigan Legislature has acted wisely by leaving in place current law that allows businesses — including restaurant and bar owners — to decide for themselves whether to allow smoking on their property.

Smoking bans may not strike most people as an obvious government property taking in the same manner as seizing someone's home to make way for a new highway, but both are an erosion of the right to use one's own private property free from government meddling.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

Special interest groups lobbying for the ban contend that second-hand smoke has negative health effects. For example, the American Lung Association points to a study by the California Environmental Protection Agency that estimated some 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 46,000 heart disease deaths occur each year in non-smokers due to second-hand smoke exposure.

These findings, however, are called into doubt by a 2003 article in the British Medical Journal that examined statistics from an American Cancer Society cancer prevention study that tracked 118,094 adults from 1959 to 1998. These kinds of long-term (longitudinal) studies using a very large sample are considered the gold standard of epidemiological research.

The focus of BMJ article was 35,561 people included in that large study who never smoked but were married to smokers. The authors concluded there was no statistically significant causal relationship between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco-related mortality, although they did not rule out a small effect. The conclusion was that the association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.

Smoking ban proponents also cite anecdotal evidence that the policy helps business at bars, restaurants, casinos and bowling alleys. The people who actually know what they're talking about, however — the owners of these establishments — generally oppose laws that repeal their right to choose for themselves what to allow or not allow on their own property.

In fact, many restaurants have already chosen to not allow smoking. For some this is no doubt a good business decision. Forcing it on others will almost certainly cost them money, since every establishment is different, with a unique clientele that has its own particular tastes and preferences.

Since no individual is forced to work or dine at any particular establishment, and plenty of choice exists between smoking and non-smoking ones, shouldn't this be an area where we let freedom ring?

C.S. Lewis wrote: "Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive . . . those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Most Americans don't smoke, but they do own property. The issue today may be smoking bans, but tomorrow it may be prohibiting other individual choices in how to use your own property. The price of freedom is eternal vigilence: Now is the time to say, "Enough!" when it comes to undue government interference with private property rights.


Russ Harding is director of the Property Rights Network 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.

Post a public comment on this.
View all comments on Mackinac Center articles.