Paying the piper

Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31, 2011

Dear Leslie,

The city is huffing and puffing these days over a proposal to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Voters will decide next week.

I just returned from Ireland, a country that banned smoking in public buildings seven years ago. The pubs are still full. Smoking seems not to be missed.

Everybody's looking for the bottom line in this debate. Is it the right of the business owner or the right of employees and customers to breathe clean air? The debate has taken on a Libertarian vs. Progressive tone, is more philosophical than practical. One side wants government out of everyone's business. The other side thinks good government ought to protect its people from health dangers.

Some people who say they aren't smokers oppose the ban because they think business owners should have the right to run their businesses the way they want. You remember the economic term laissez-faire from school, the idea that the fewer regulations the better. It sounds good, but the reality is that deregulation brings out the dark side in business. The lack of oversight in banking and on Wall Street brought on the recession we're still recovering from.

Government has been preventing business owners from doing whatever they want for at least a century. Eighth-graders learn about the muckrakers who exposed corruption in American industry at the beginning of the 20th century. In "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair revealed the meatpacking industry to be a cesspool where workers toiled in despicable conditions.

That led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Health departments periodically check businesses that serve food and drink to assure the public safety. Government protects the people it represents from all kinds of dangers, including foul air.

The desire to control your own business is understandable. We like freedom. If it's the freedom to damage your health with tobacco, so be it. It's when your freedom infringes on mine, or mine on yours, that we have to choose one or the other.

New Jersey didn't know what to do. The state banned smoking in public buildings in 2006 but made an exception for the casinos the state and Atlantic City are so dependent on. Only 75 percent of the casino floors are smoke-free, which appears to have satisfied no one.

However next week's vote goes, I suspect the smoking-ban bottom line will turn out to be practical, not philosophical. In December, an Atlantic City casino settled a lawsuit with a former employee who claimed secondhand smoke caused his lung cancer. He had worked for the casino for 25 years and never smoked.

The casino paid him $4.5 million.

In 2000, a New Jersey black jack dealer won a $150,000 workers' compensation claim for lost wages and medical expenses due to lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke.

When restaurants and bars that permit smoking have to fight huge lawsuits, the philosophical debates about individual and public rights will end. The piper will be paid.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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