Stefan Geens, a man whose description of his blog on nycbloggers.com
starts with the sentence "free trade is good," has gone decidedly
off Milton Friedman’s deep end in his latest post.
It reminds me of the old joke: How many Chicago School economists does
it take to change a lightbulb? None: if the bulb needed changing, the
market would have done it already.
In Stefan’s conception, if 75% of New Yorkers wanted non-smoking bars
and restaurants, then 75% of bars and restaurants would be non-smoking.
Since this hasn’t happened, then any poll which shows such a thing must
be "a load of bollocks".
Before getting on to the reasons why Stefan’s argument is a load of
bollocks, let me point him first of all to the relevant press
release from the New York City Coalition for a Smoke Free City,
and also to the New York Times article
(linked to from stefangeens.com, of all places) which says that 76%
of the 7,000 members of the New York Restaurant Association favour a
law banning smoking in bars and restaurants. Stefan wonders whether
the former poll might not have made it clear that restaurants and bars
were considered workplaces; the press release clearly states that the
question was about "all workplaces, including offices, restaurants
In fact, it’s easy to see both how 75% of New Yorkers might want smoke-free
bars, Stefan’s own personal opinion to the contrary notwithstanding,
and also to see how the mere desire for such things might not be sufficient
to bring them into existence.
First things first: Non-smokers like smoke-free bars for reasons which
everybody knows. But if you go to LA, where smoke-free bars are the
law, you’ll even find a lot of smokers lauding them. Were they common
before the law was passed? No. Here are some reasons why not:
- The relative force of the prohibition. If smokers aren’t allowed
to smoke by law, they won’t. But if an individual bar decides to go
unilaterally non-smoking, it’s likely to be on the receiving end of
a lot of smokers’ complaints.
- The fact that most groups of friends include smokers, who are hooked
to a highly addictive substance; furthermore, their addiction seems
only stronger when it’s combined with drinking. In short, smokers’ desire
to smoke in bars is a lot stronger than non-smokers’ desire to drink
in non-smoking bars.So a group of smokers and non-smokers will inevitably
go to a smoking bar if given the choice. Only if the smokers have
to step outside to light up, will they.
- The fact that Beautiful People, the trend-setters with the white American
Express cards who most bars want to attract, tend to be much more likely
to smoke. And non-smokers, who have lived all their lives in a city
with smoking bars, have shown themselves more than willing to go to
such places. So switching from smoking to non-smoking status carries
quite a large downside (the loss of the smokers and their friends) with
very little upside (the extra patronage of the boring types who seek
out non-smoking bars, should such people actually exist).
Basically, it seems as though Stefan has confused the desire for New
York to ban smoking in bars with a desire to go to non-smoking bars, given
the choice. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one: I’m sure that
most of the 75% would rather go to a cool bar with smoking than an uncool
bar without it. But they’d prefer even more to go to a cool bar without
smoking, which is only going to happen if a law is passed. That’s why
they want the law!
Personally, I’m agnostic on the issue of whether I prefer smoking or
non-smoking bars. I’ve been to good exemplars of both. But the way Mike
Bloomberg is presenting this, my own preference is not really the point.
If I don’t want smelly clothes and red eyes, I don’t need to go to bars
in the first place. Bloomberg’s point, which I think is unarguable, is
that bar proprietors and staff are seriously harmed by second-hand smoke:
his proposed law would exist primarily to protect them.
All manner of workplace-safety laws are on the books already, for very
good reason. The way I see it, this is another law of that ilk. Bartenders
have to work in the smokiest sections of the smokiest bars for eight hours
a night, up to six nights a week. That’s a horrible workplace condition,
even if the bartender is a smoker. I predict that if this law goes into
force, there will be a lot of grumbling for a few months, and then people
will realise that they actually prefer it the new way, while bars will
realise that they’ve lost no custom. The population will be healthier,
bartenders will be happier, and everyone will win. Especially the bar
owners with gardens.