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Commentary: Smoking: Give people options

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2009 - "Lord save us from the good people" is one of Jim White's greatest quotes. The "good people" have come to St Louis, and they are pushing hard to ban smoking in public places. How city aldermen handle this demand affect the freedoms we enjoy and the employment of hundreds.

Is a smoking ban really necessary to protect public health? The results of secondhand smoke studies have been very mixed. A large study by the World Health Organization, for instance, found no correlation between workplace exposure to secondhand smoke and lung cancer. A recent study by researchers from the Rand Corp., Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin and the Congressional Budget Office found that smoking bans have not reduced rates of hospitalization, heart attacks or other serious disease in communities that impose them. OSHA, the government agency charged with protecting worker health, after studying the issue smoking in the workplace for years, opted not to regulate it. How dangerous could smoking in the workplace really be?

Does the public support a ban? The answer is not as clear as the pro-ban lobby indicates. The most recent Gallup poll showed that 54 percent of Americans support a ban on smoking in restaurants. When it comes to bars, only 29 percent support a ban. A 2007 Survey by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found that only 49.4 percent of St Louis city residents thought smoking should banned in restaurants. Only 24.5 percent of city resident favored banning smoking in bars. The poll showed that only 11 percent, among those who work indoors, want a stronger workplace smoking policy. These polls show that public opinion is not solidly on the side of the strict smoking ban Alderman Lyda Krewson has proposed.

Hasn't this issue has already been solved by the market? In St Louis city, 42 percent of restaurants are already completely smoke-free by choice. Of those that allow smoking, almost all restrict it to the bar area. Very few establishments in the city allow smoking in dining areas. In fact, a smoker who wishes to smoke at his table will have very few choices. When I ask, "When was the last time you were bothered by smoke at a restaurant?", most people cannot remember.

There have been 150 studies done on the economic impact of bans on the hospitality industry. The studies that don't find harm to businesses are conducted by public health advocates and published in public health journals. They are not trained economists. Smoking-ban studies conducted by professional economists and published in economic journals almost always find that smoking bans do harm to the hospitality industry.

The research of the two most widely published economists on the smoking ban issue, Michael Pakko, a researcher at the St. Louis Federal Reserve and Chad Cotti, a University of Wisconsin economist, yield the best estimate of the likely effect of a smoking ban on the St. Louis hospitality industry.

Pakko has studied the smoking ban in areas adjacent to St. Louis. He found that the Columbia, Mo., smoking ban cut the revenues of bars by 11 percent; of restaurants that serve alcohol by 6.4 percent and the overall Columbia restaurant trade by 3.5 percent. In Illinois, Pakko determined that the smoking ban cut overall casino revenues by 20 percent.

Cotti, based on his national study of the effect of smoking bans on employment in the hospitality industry, recently estimated that a St. Louis city smoking ban would cut bar employment 19.7 percent and restaurant employment by 1.1 percent.

Cotti's estimate lines up well with Pakko's research. If you look at the 11 percent average revenue loss that Columbia bars sustained, the predicted St. Louis city job losses make sense. Some bars have room to build a patio (as happened in Columbia) and can maintain revenue. But some bars either don't have the money or the space to build their own patios. Losses there will be much higher than the 11 percent average and will go out of business. The employees at those establishments are the ones who will lose their jobs.

While Cotti says city restaurants will have only a 1.1 percent loss of employment, but those who remain employed will at least face certain cuts in their hours. After all, restaurant employees are primarily hourly workers. When a restaurant slows down, it doesn't fire employees, it cuts employee hours.

There will be cost from a smoking ban. Restaurant, bar owners and their employees will pay it.

"Lord, save us from the good people" who believe it is better to be unemployed than to work in a smoking-allowed business. "Lord, save us from the good people" who do not own a business, but know how to run one better than the owners. "Lord, save us from the good people" who know what is best for us. I wonder what the good people think we should ban next.

Tony Palazzolo, an insurance agent, works with Keep St. Louis Free.