Monday, June 21, 2010

Statewide Smoking "Ban" Two Weeks Away

Two weeks from today, on the 5th of July, the statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants goes into effect. Problem is, it’s not really a ban. Bar and restaurant owners have already found scores of loopholes to exploit, because nobody seems to be able to explain exactly what the law means.

No surprise, given that the law was written by lobbyists. In case you haven’t been paying attention, lobbyists now write all our important laws. They wrote that useless, toothless payday lending law; they wrote the educational “reform” law; they wrote the bill “regulating” the phone companies, and on and on.

And you thought our lawmakers wrote our laws? Come on.

The lobbyists put a neat little feature into the smoking ban law, which allows tavern and restaurant owners to create “accommodations” for their clients who smoke. But nobody can explain how these accommodations should be built, or even what they really are. Is it a patio? A deck? Some outside smoking area? A room adjoining the main facility, set aside for smokers?

The lobbyists wrote a law that nobody can understand, and that no city planner or building code enforcer can explain or interpret.

And that’s just the way the lobbyists wanted it.

When the politicians got up and gave speeches about this statewide smoking ban, they said they wanted to create a level playing field for all bars and restaurants, a level playing field that wasn’t possible under the patchwork of local smoking ordinances passed by municipalities across the state.

What the law does is essentially create two classes of bars and restaurants: one class that can afford to build or expand to handle smokers by squeezing through the loophole; and another class of bars and restaurants that can’t afford to do that, and will of course lose the business of smokers who can be accommodated by the other class of bars and restaurants.

Some of the pigs are more equal than the other pigs.

So, two weeks from today when the new law takes effect, don’t expect your favorite bar or restaurant to be smoke-free. Here in Wisconsin, where lobbyists write the laws, a ban is not really a ban.


  1. The public wants and believes that a 100% smoking ban will be in place, and with 80.5% of the adult public being nonsmokers, taverns and restaurants that skirt the law may pay a heavy price. When Beverly Hills originally passed its smoke-free law, those restaurants and bars that skirted it lost 30% of their business, all nonsmokers who objected to the violations. It's going to be tough on smokers, though 30% of them even prefer smoke-free dining and 80% want to quit smoking.

  2. No need of a smoking ban in this country.
    Owners have the right to use and permit a legal product on their property.

  3. I am a nonsmoker who enjoys sitting in his favorite watering holes and not breathing cigarette smoke. Nevertheless, the smoking ban seems to me an issue where the vaunted power of the marketplace ought to be allowed to work. Shouldn't the economic forces Jack Lohman describes---i.e., most of the public wants smoke-free bars and restaurants and will take their business away from places that don't provide it---be enough to create an incentive for smoke-free places as well as a niche market for places allowing smoking? Numbers being what they are, what would be the incentive for an owner whose customers wanted a smoke-free place *not* to permit it? I can't see one.

  4. I'll venture a guess that jb does not run a small business - and certainly not a bar or restaurant. It is in those places, and others that depend on the good will of their customers for their success, that the power of the marketplace loses traction.

    It seems perfectly logical that a restaurateur who banned smoking in his establishment would have to add extra tables to accommodate those customers who fled from the smokier joints. In practice, it doesn't work that way.

    If I'm a good customer of your eatery, and I decide to light up as the coffee arrives, you may ask me to take it outside - but you won't want to. And if you are some night in the position of having to roust an entire table, or much of a party, because of the tobacco fires, that puts you in a tough spot. This is particularly true if the eatery across the street doesn't take such a hard line.

    Sticking to your smoke-free policy might eventually work, but it might also backfire (to coin a phrase) and could very easily ruin many a customer relationship. In the long run you get uneven enforcement of policies and little in the way of accomplished good.

    Better to set the rules and let the proprietor spend more time on the food and less time on enforcing the rules.

    When New York City banned smoking in bars and restaurants, it was a no-kidding, we mean it, ban.

    Smokers groused, proprietors (mostly bar owners) complained on behalf of their addicted customers. Some of them paid fines. But there was not one case, that I'm aware of, where the ban drove an establishment out of business. In fact, the opposite seems to have been the case. The restaurant scene here is robust. And a quick look at the police blotter suggests that while patrons of even the dives have to go outside to smoke, they still conduct their fistfights in the barroom.

  5. hieronymous,

    >> It is in those places, and others that depend on the good will of their customers for their success, that the power of the marketplace loses traction. <<

    I must admit, a very neatly-turned phrase. I marvel at the ingenuity of anti-free marketeers in painting the free market into a corner as you've done here.

    Your unstated assumption is this: that once the state gets it into its head that a social outcome is desirable, getting the co-operation of the free market is really impossible without force. The free market "fails" in and of itself to accomplish what the state wants; therefore it must be coerced, regulated, and steered towards that outcome.

    The "power of the marketplace" is in delivering products and services that people want, no more, no less. It isn't a tool of social change wielded by the government, frustrating as that might be; though it certainly has become a convenient fall guy for every failure of GOVERNMENT.

    If you're going to declare that a non-smoking policy is "good", then just say so. Please don't be mealy-mouthed and weasel-worded about it by saying that it's the fault of the small businesses that are trying to accommodate their customers the best that they can. They can't fine people or put them in jail for "failing" to institute policies that the government deems desirable.

    The Town Crank

  6. Ah, Crank ... Your lens seems to make every issue look like conspiratorial politics. That is perhaps why you persist in addressing "unstated assumptions" you erroneously perceive. I am glad that, despite your propensity for jumping to conclusions, you have managed to survive to some form of adulthood.

    I have no disdain for the marketplace, especially when it comes to delivering products and services people want. Even if it works a bit oddly at times.

    It is a system of pure genius that can articulate problems we were unaware of, such as the awful smells emanating from the various crevices of our bodies, and then proffer the solutions we want, need and must have, perhaps in the form of a new deodorant.

    Why is it that the marketplace for, let's say, Internet services, has yet to deliver network speeds that are more than a sliver of what folks in Europe and Asia can access? (Even the vaunted and overpriced FiOS is an anesthetized slug compared to the services the Japanese take for granted.) I want that speed, but nearly two decades in, I still cannot buy it.

    But as usual, I digress.

    I do have a distaste for social tinkerers - a view you seem to share to some extent. If you decided that was not the case with me, then I can see why you would accuse me of being "mealymouthed" and my position "weasel-worded."

    Is it a good idea to ban tobacco smoking or salt or transfats or spitting on the sidewalk or any of those other things the social tinkerers love to fiddle with? I don't know and I'm not prepared to defend either position.

    What I can tell you about is human nature. If the goal is to ban tobacco smoking in dining establishments, then the only effective way to do that is to really ban it. Pussyfooting around by dumping enforcement on the proprietors - the better to not offend any smoke-filled political constituents - is the coward's path to certain failure.

    When the approach (weasely would work well here) doesn't work - and you may be sure it will not - then the politicians can escape culpability by pointing to the weak-kneed restaurant owners who were supposed to browbeat their customers into compliance. I'm sure I am not explaining something that you do not already understand.

    Go out and sit in your car for a minute. Check out the seatbelts and the anti-lock brakes and the collapsible steering column and the airbags and the crumple zones and the soft dashboard and the safety glass and the flat knobs and buttons, and most of the other safety features in the vehicle. The government's original approach was to allow carmakers (aka the marketplace) to sell such things as options.

    That approach got near-zero market penetration until federal rules said all cars must have such things. Now we take safety features for granted, and more of us are alive to tell about it. Was that government intervention a good idea? Was it an affront to the free market? I don't know. But that's not really the point, is it?