Editorial: Snuffing out the ban

Debates between residents of Champaign and Urbana over a smoking ban have raged on for some time. These political confrontations are, in a way, reflective of the contradictory nature of trade and consumption of tobacco products, known to cause direct and grave harm to users in the long run in such a risk averse society.

It’s easy to understand why the pressure on the Champaign City Council to enact a smoking ban in “all public places” has persisted, even after a Sept. 13 vote by the council to keep the regulations as is. According to the National Cancer Institute, a government organization created by the National Cancer Act of 1937, about 3,000 adult nonsmokers die of lung cancer from exposure to smoke each year. At least 60 of the 4,000 chemicals known to exist in mainstream tobacco smoke are known carcinogens, and six of them hinder cell development. Smoking is a health risk for not only those who choose to light up a cigarette, pipe or cigar but also for nearby people breathing in the smoke.

There would be nothing wrong with enacting a smoking ban inside or near public places like a police headquarters, a courthouse or a city hall building. Visitors of such places have no other options available to them to resolve whatever conflict they must. In such a public location, it is sensible to prevent exposure to a health risk as great as smoke.

But patrons of bars and restaurants make an active choice in entering such establishments. Urbana and Champaign boasts a wide variety of quality establishments to any who are looking for a quick glass of beer or a dinner out. Those who do not wish to be subjected to the dangers of second hand smoke can choose to visit restaurants that are not occupied by as many smokers as some, or provide enough spacing between booths or tables to minimize the risk.

Part of the problem is that there are very few bars and restaurants in Urbana and Champaign that are smoke-free. But these are private establishments owned and operated by those who make a living out of providing services. By enacting any type of a ban, proprietors reduce the pool of possible patrons – something that many owners would be loath to do. Of course, the situation would be much different if creating a smoke-free environment would have presented a substantial profit opportunity. But, for all the talk about the amount of non-smokers who would start going out to eat and drink, there have yet to be any cities in the United States where a majority of businesses voluntarily banned smoking within their properties.

Ultimately, the decision to move to a smoke free environment for private businesses should remain within the domain of the business owners, who should have the freedom to conduct their establishment in manners they see fit. A categorical ban against the usage of a substance in private establishments must be only against materials and goods that are patently offensive and harmful to the general public. Tobacco products may very well deserve such a measure, but it is difficult to reconcile such an argument against the fact that the FDA, despite all the harmful effects of such goods, continue to allow consumption and trade of these items to those of legal age.

There is no doubt about the health hazards of a smoke-filled atmosphere in closed-air buildings. But two of the core ideals of the U.S. legal system are the right to choose and the right of property. A smoking ban would contradict both of these principles by striking against smokers and business owners who permit them to smoke on their property. But consumers have the final say in a free market economy – they have the right to vote with their dollars.