Smoking in bars is becoming a thing of the past. The blogosphere has some thoughts:
Matthew Cooper at The Atlantic:
Tobacco is one of the few consumable products, along with most of the herbal medicine aisle at the drug store, that’s not FDA regulated. Thus cigarette packages still don’t list all of the ingredients, chemicals and the like, that are used to enhance the experience. Now Congress seems poised to pass a bill allowing FDA approval.
How and why did things change? Part of it is simply the election of a Democratic Congress and president. By the mid Nineties, the GOP controlled Congress and that limited what the Clinton administration and its more activist members, like former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, could do. But the most important change has been the continued ostracism of smokers from public life. The anti-tobacco crusade has been going on for two generations, of course, beginning with the famed 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the perils of smoking and going through the withdrawal of cigarette ads from TV in the seventies and the end of smoking on most commercial planes in the 80s.
That process has accelerated dramatically since 2004 when New York City essentially banned smoking in bars and restaurants. It seemed so wild at the time. Chris Hitchens wrote a hysterical Vanity Fair piece on his attempts to defy the ban. It seemed radical, the odd teetotaling of a mayor who also pursued trans fats with a vengeance. Now, of course, smoking bans are everywhere and while the libertarian in me finds them irksome, the fact is that the public has not revolted and tossed out politicians who impose them. Trans fats are under siege, too.
For me, the interesting question is not so much the spread of the ban across jurisdictions as its nearly universal success in implementation. When Ireland banned smoking in enclosed spaces in 2004, I would have been prepared to bet large amounts of money that the ban would be universally ignored (Irish citizens have historically had a flexible attitude to the interpretation of legal rules that don’t suit them). In particular, I would have predicted that the ban would never work in pubs. But it did – pretty well instantaneously as best as I could tell. If it hadn’t been for the Irish example, I would have bet even larger amounts that the ban would never have taken off in Italy (where storeowners are legally obliged to give you a receipt when you buy something, to make it more difficult for them to fiddle taxes, and where the general attitude to large swathes of civil and criminal law seems best characterized as a kind of amiable contempt). But again, it appears to have worked.
I haven’t seen any research on this (if someone knows of any, let me know in comments), but my best guess in the absence of good evidence would be that the success of the ban reflected instabilities in previously existing informal norms about where people could or could not smoke. Laws that work against prevailing social norms face an uphill battle in implementation – unless people come to a general belief that non-compliers are highly likely to be sanctioned by the public authorities, they are likely to carry on doing what they always do. Hence, for example, the continued failure of the RIAA etc to stop file-sharing – file-sharers who both (a) think that there is nothing wrong with swapping music and movies, and (b) that the chance that they are going to be punished is low, are going to go on sharing files (current US law tries to counterbalance this problem by applying relatively draconian penalties to the few file sharers who are caught, but this strategy carries its own problems). Laws that broadly fit with prevailing informal norms, will, obviously, have few implementation problems.
This seems like a market failure. You can explain it through preference asymmetry and the profitability of various customer classes: heavy drinkers are more likely to also be heavy smokers, and they are the most profitable customers. Bar owners don’t want big groups of people who are going to take up three tables for an hour and a half while nursing one white wine spritzer apiece. They want people who are there to drink. In a competitive equilibrium, they couldn’t afford to go non-smoking because they’d lose their most profitable customers to all the other bars.
You can explain it, but this doesn’t seem like a good market outcome by any measure. Let me be clear, I’m still against the smoking ban, even though I personally vastly prefer smoke-free environments; I think interfering with property rights like this has even heavier costs. But I also recognize that I’m in a minority. And I think that politically, if not intellectually, the success of smoking bans is a heavy blow to libertarian credibility.
Daniel Indiviglio responds to McArdle:
This does not seem like a market failure to me, because I would further argue that there’s always been a substitute for smoke-filled bars: smokeless homes. Anyone who truly abhors smoke can simply throw or attend social gatherings at houses or apartments. In that setting smokers can politely be asked to smoke outdoors or go home.
How strong is the house party substitute? If I had data on whether house parties have decreased since bar smoking bans have taken effect, then that would be helpful. I don’t, and other variables like the desire to drink at home for cheaper during a recession might skew the data anyway. I still doubt, however, that the minor harm to utility that smoke in bars causes most people inspires them to seek alternatives.
As a result, I wouldn’t call a lack of smokeless bars a market failure, because I don’t think that markets with lackluster demand that already contain pretty good alternatives should be created. Is there a market for hamburger restaurants with no buns for carb conscious people? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem to be strong enough for bun-less hamburger restaurants to be popping up — especially since people can just cook their own at home without the bun if they choose.
It seems pretty obvious that the optimal market outcome would involve some smoking and some non-smoking bars. This is what the market was moving towards, with a small but growing number of smokefree bars here in New Zealand before the ban. Due to the stickiness of social norms, though, this movement might have been slower than we might prefer. I have no idea what the optimal mix would be, but I’m fairly comfortable saying there were too few non-smoking bars in New Zealand before the ban.
Taylor links to Jonathan Adler:
So let’s say Farrell is correct, and smoking bans have displaced an unstable norm that smoking in restaurants is acceptable with a more robust norm that smoking in restaurants is not. What would happen were such bans to be repealed? My best guess is that relatively little would change. When I think about my favorite local restaurants, I cannot see any of them allowing patrons to smoke even if the law were changed. There are one or two local bars, however, that I suspect might allow smoking on the premises, but they would be the exception. So whereas before the smoking ban here in Ohio, most restaurants and bars allowed smoking in a separate room or at the bar, were the ban repealed today I would be willing to bet that most restaurants and bars would remain entirely smoke-free.
What does this all mean? On the one hand, if most restaurants and bars would remain smoke-free, it seems to me the argument for allowing some establishments to adopt different rules is that much stronger. Remove the bans and us libertarian-types can still toast to the free market system in a smoke-free pub. But it is important to acknowledge that this state of affairs exists today because of the initial government intervention. The smoking ban appears to have helped solve a collective action problem that had kept a suboptimal norm in place. So even if a ban limited the ability of business owners to set the rules for their own businesses, it may have also helped them shift toward preferable business practices. Non-governmental efforts may have produced the same result eventually, but it would almost certainly have taken longer. So smoking bans have been beneficial, but it may also be the case that the maintenance of such bans is unnecessary to retain most of their benefits.