To Ban or Not To Ban: The Liberal Dilemma on Smoking

Sunday, February 06, 2011 - 04:36 PM

I’m a non-smoker. I believe that cigarettes have a destructive impact and that the tobacco industry perpetrated a willful, harmful fraud against the American public. I’m a liberal. I subscribe to the public health concerns around smoking and am concerned about the overall societal costs for caring for those damaged by the habit. I fully believe these concerns demand us to take action.

Yet, I’m unsure about the latest smoking ban put forth by the City Council.

It’s not often I agree with Dan Halloran, the conservative City Council member who most recently made news with trumped up charges against city workers after the December blizzard as part of an ideological, right-wing smear campaign against organized labor. But on the Brian Lehrer Show on Friday, he and progressive Council Member Robert Jackson made compelling arguments as they explained what made them “odd bedfellows” in opposing the Council action to ban smoking in public parks, plazas, beaches and boardwalks. 

How would the law be policed? Would it require extensive resources? Will it fall on the shoulders of our park workers whose numbers have been drastically diminished due to budget cuts? Will it create tensions between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding citizens? Will violators be warned or ticketed? The city has been known to lean on violations to boost city revenue, but it seems absurd to fine a tourist unfamiliar with the ban or a stressed out worker who absent-mindedly lights up on a break. Scarier still is the notion of uneven enforcement: will it be one more excuse to target New Yorkers of color, who are already disproportionately caught up in the city’s expansive stop-and-frisk policies?

Halloran didn’t do himself any favors making false equivalencies and quoting pseudo-science, like noting that no study has shown the risks from second-hand smoke to be greater than the risks from truck exhaust is just a distraction. The impact of second-hand smoke has been well-documented. Plus, while the city should also take aggressive measures to protect residents from other pollutants, this doesn’t need to be either-or.

On one hand, as a liberal, I embrace the purpose behind the ban. I respect science-based public policy, and want action that promotes the public good. But as a liberal, I also want citizens to build a positive relationship with their government, a trust that may be jeopardized by an overreaching legislative act and by intrusive enforcement. Furthermore, as a liberal, I want the public to see the government working effectively, and I worry the enforcement of this law will be haphazard at best, and discriminatory at worst.

Then there’s the fact that I enjoy hanging out at bars. Our pubs are democratic spaces and the venues for our national network of political social clubs called “Drinking Liberally." Drinking Liberally isn’t about the alcohol — you are welcome drink water or coffee, juice or soda — but about the social community that forms around talking politics (and I should note that plenty of conservatives attend). But we do meet in bars — despite the evidence that alcohol consumption has a potentially deleterious effect on personal health and alcohol abuse is extremely destructive to society.

We have our vices. Shouldn’t smokers be allowed to have theirs?

Of course drinking and smoking aren’t direct parallels, and drinking is heavily regulated and kept out of public spaces (to an unnecessary extreme). Yet, it does seem that middle-ground steps — like separate smoking and non-smoking sections of the beach — could be a way of reducing smoking and its second-hand effects, making the law more governable, and still allowing citizens to engage in their self-destructive actions without hurting everyone else.

That said, I’ve been wrong before. Before the spring of 2002, though I wasn’t a smoker, I hung out in one of the smokiest nooks in Manhattan, the dive bar Rudy’s. When the ban came, I remember feeling bad for the older regulars whose lifestyle was about to dramatically change, and for the owner who would no doubt lose money.

Nine years later, Rudy’s is more packed than ever, and people have learned to smoke outside. The regulars are still there in the day, and business is booming at night. But the most telling testimony was from the bar manager who had angrily opposed the ban before it passed. About three months later, he conceded: “Business is fine, the bar is cleaner than it’s ever been, and I’m not coughing the way I used to.“

The smoking ban of 2002 was a success for the city, a model for the country, and sparked bans around the world. Let’s hope this newest ban proves us skeptics — including us non-smoking liberally skeptics — wrong as well.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."


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Comments [8]

Charles from NYC

I'll try again:

" I subscribe to the public health concerns around smoking and am concerned about the overall societal costs for caring for those damaged by the habit. I fully believe these concerns demand us to take action."

What you mean by "the overall societal costs" I have no idea; but if you're talking about financial costs, then there are several studies out there showing clearly that smokers cost society LESS than non-smokers, since there are not only the tobacco taxes (and you can add in the MSA payments), but smokers tend to die earlier, thus saving on social security and pension payments, long-range medical costs, and stays in nursing and retirement homes, etc. etc. In fact, a fairly recent Dutch study showed that smokers come in THIRD behind the obese (in second place) and normally healthy people (in first place!) in financial cost to society.

And you show as much ignorance when it comes to bans in bars and restaurants. Whether or not the bans hurt bar and restaurant businesses in New York City is totally beside the point (and the evidence clearly shows that bans have had a devastating effect overall, both nationwide and worldwide); the point is that government has no business interfering in a private business without a compelling state reason. And in the New York City case, that compelling state reason was given as the protection of staff, since non-smokers have never to my knowledge been dragged kicking and screaming into a bar that allows smoking. In fact, when the NYC ban went into effect, the anti-smoking crusader Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health and a world-class epidemiologist (Harvard/Yale), made several statements saying that nobody, employee or patron, has ever died as the result of smoking being allowed in a bar or restaurant. But that didn't stop control freaks Bloomberg and members of the City Council from taking away the rights of bar and restaurant owners. It's very simply, jackboot government, nothing more, nothing less.

Have you no shame, sir, writing about something it's obvious you know nothing about? Or were you just tweaking your ego?

Feb. 10 2011 03:47 PM

I subscribe to the public health concerns around smoking and am concerned about the overall societal costs for caring for those damaged by the habit.

Feb. 10 2011 02:50 PM
Vladimir from NJ

As a liberal, I believe that you should be able to do what ever you want as long as it does not affect ME in any way. I don't care about second hand smoke, real or not, I don't care if you hit your child, or screw your dog. I do however care when your smoke hits me in the face. Once this ban is in effect, I will be spitting past anyone smoking! not at them, just near them, see how they like my spit spraying on them. It's not a matter of YOUR right to smoke, its a matter of MY right not to have to deal with it.

Feb. 07 2011 10:26 PM

The anti-smokers commit flagrant scientific fraud by ignoring more than 50 studies which show that human papillomaviruses cause at least 1/4 of non-small cell lung cancers. Smokers and passive smokers are more likely to have been exposed to this virus for socioeconomic reasons. And the anti-smokers' studies are all based on lifestyle questionnaires, so they're cynically DESIGNED to blame tobacco for all those extra lung cancers that are really caused by HPV. And they commit the same type of fraud with every disease they blame on tobacco.

And, all their so-called "independent" reports were ring-led by the same guy, Jonathan M. Samet, including the Surgeon General Reports, the EPA report, the IARC report, and the ASHRAE report, and he's now the chairman of the FDA Committee on Tobacco. He and his politically privileged clique exclude all the REAL scientists from their echo chamber. That's how they make their reports "unanimous!"

For the government to commit fraud to deprive us of our liberties is automatically a violation of our Constitutional rights to the equal protection of the laws, just as much as if it purposely threw innocent people in prison. And for the government to spread lies about phony smoking dangers is terrorism, no different from calling in phony bomb threats.

Feb. 07 2011 02:11 PM

You certainly are liberal, particularly with the truth. For example:

Sanitation response to the December blizzard is still being investigated, and neither Grand Jury testimony nor the progress of the city's Department of Investigation are matters of public information.

Until then, the possibility that individuals allowed personal feelings to interfere with their civil service exists.

As a life-long, native New Yorker, such a possiblity is not unthinkable to me. But then again I live in Halloran's district and saw what I saw.

Halloran never implicated organized labor, he accused a handful of supervisors

Thus far, the only trumped up charge or smear campaign in this matter is yours.

Feb. 07 2011 10:53 AM
Audrey Silk from Brooklyn

Justin, I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the subject, I really do. But at the same time you suffer from ignorance. For instance, you seem to think there's any chance for reasonable compromise (segregation instead of prohibition). That tells me you have zero knowledge about the anti-smoker MOVEMENT that's behind all of this. It's never their intent to be "smoke"-free. They intend to attain smokER-free by methods of squeezing smokers out in incremental steps. You think all would end if a compromise bill had passed? That would be that? Investigate that on which you opine and maybe you'd learn that they would absolutely, positively be back to "close that loophole." Since you apparently have no deep familiarity with the issue it stands to reason that you also believe what the headlines tell you about so-called "secondhand smoke" because you haven't explored it more extensively. At the least it remains controversial and unproven for Indoor Air. There is NO study (but ONE weak one whose own author says if you are upwind or 6 ft away from a smoker outdoors your exposure is zero) or biologically plausible case to be made that smoke outdoors is harmful.

Nevertheless and such is the case... this law will be paid the respect it deserves.

Founder, NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (C.L.A.S.H.)

Feb. 07 2011 06:59 AM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

Giant difference between smoking indoors, and smoking outdoors. Smoke lingers indoors, it drifts away outdoors. This is a silly idea that should be squashed.

Feb. 07 2011 03:00 AM
harleyrider1978 from A free state

Halloran didn’t do himself any favors making false equivalencies and quoting pseudo-science, like noting that no study has shown the risks from second-hand smoke to be greater than the risks from truck exhaust is just a distraction. The impact of second-hand smoke has been well-documented.


’They have created a fear that is based on nothing’’
World-renowned pulmonologist, president of the prestigious Research Institute Necker for the last decade, Professor Philippe Even, now retired, tells us that he’s convinced of the absence of harm from passive smoking. A shocking interview.

What do the studies on passive smoking tell us?

PHILIPPE EVEN. There are about a hundred studies on the issue. First surprise: 40% of them claim a total absence of harmful effects of passive smoking on health. The remaining 60% estimate that the cancer risk is multiplied by 0.02 for the most optimistic and by 0.15 for the more pessimistic … compared to a risk multiplied by 10 or 20 for active smoking! It is therefore negligible. Clearly, the harm is either nonexistent, or it is extremely low.

It is an indisputable scientific fact. Anti-tobacco associations report 3 000-6 000 deaths per year in France ...

I am curious to know their sources. No study has ever produced such a result.

Many experts argue that passive smoking is also responsible for cardiovascular disease and other asthma attacks. Not you?

They don’t base it on any solid scientific evidence. Take the case of cardiovascular diseases: the four main causes are obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes. To determine whether passive smoking is an aggravating factor, there should be a study on people who have none of these four symptoms. But this was never done. Regarding chronic bronchitis, although the role of active smoking is undeniable, that of passive smoking is yet to be proven. For asthma, it is indeed a contributing factor ... but not greater than pollen!

The purpose of the ban on smoking in public places, however, was to protect non-smokers. It was thus based on nothing?

Absolutely nothing! The psychosis began with the publication of a report by the IARC, International Agency for Research on Cancer, which depends on the WHO (Editor's note: World Health Organization). The report released in 2002 says it is now proven that passive smoking carries serious health risks, but without showing the evidence. Where are the data? What was the methodology? It's everything but a scientific approach. It was creating fear that is not based on anything.

Feb. 06 2011 08:00 PM

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