Monday, September 15, 2008

The law of unintended consequences

“So, the big 40 is fast approaching. What have you got planned for the milestone celebration?” I asked my oldest daughter.

“I don’t know yet, Dad”, she answered. “We thought about commandeering some tables at the Legion, but . . .”

She hesitated before going on. “You saw what happened at Carrie’s wedding last year. The hall was never any more than half full after dinner. At one point, there were only three guests and a waitress in the hall. The rest of them were down in the freaking parking lot having a smoke. And, that’s weird as hell, because over half of them were non-smokers like me”.

“Yeah. But look on the bright side”, I offered, grinning broadly. “Now you can go out to dinner without having to put up with the offending odour of cigarette smoke”.

“I could do that before the freaking ban. When was the last time you saw anyone smoking in the Mandarin or any other decent restaurant?” she demanded, her voice rising slightly. ”Who in hell asked for this freaking ban anyway?”

“Don’t look at me”. I chuckled, pulling a pack of Putter’s Lights from my shirt pocket. “I’ll be back shortly”.

The last words I heard as the screen door closed and I stepped into the garden were: “Lovely, just freaking lovely”.

A few months back, ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) Ireland suggested that the smoking bans in the United Kingdom were having an adverse effect on children’s exposure to secondhand smoke. According to ASH, the ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants was not having the desired effect.
Instead of quitting, smokers were picking up a six-pack and doing their drinking, and smoking, at home. Local pubs in England are feeling the crunch, with over 2,150 (to date) having closed since the English ban was initiated in July of 2007. Similar closures have been noted in Scotland since the Scottish parliament instituted a country wide ban two years ago.

But, the more serious problem, according to ASH, was the fact that children are perhaps being exposed to greater levels of secondhand smoke as more and more parents do their entertaining and smoking at home rather than the local pub.

It was a foreseeable problem, of course, if government had taken the time to listen to both sides of the argument. Instead, any and all opponents to the bans were dismissed as lackeys of the tobacco industry. Unfortunately, if you hear only one side of a dialogue, you won’t understand the conversation. And without all the facts, you can’t make a truly informed decision. In many cases, a mean old dog called “Unintended Consequences” will rise up and bite you in the ass.

In July, 2006, a couple of researchers released a discussion paper called, “The Effect of Taxes and Bans on Passive Smoking”. They were Jérôme Adda, University College London, Institute for Fiscal Studies and Francesca Cornagli University College London, Department of Economics.

Their conclusions: “While on average, bans in public transports, shopping malls or schools decrease the exposure of non-smokers, bans in bars, restaurants or recreational facilities appear to increase their exposure. We hypothesize that such bans displace the smoking to places where non-smokers are more exposed, especially young children".

These results suggest that smoking regulations have a distributional effect, increasing the exposure and putting at risk the health of poorer sections of the population while it benefits individuals in higher socio-economic position. The strengthening of smoking regulations could possibly lead to a widening in health disparities across socio-economic groups”.

Essentially, what they found was that increases in sin taxes and smoking bans in truly public areas, such as public transit and malls, had some effect on reducing exposure to secondhand smoke. Smoking bans in pubs and restaurants, on the other hand, were more likely to increase exposure in non-smokers.

And, as in any regressive form of taxation, such as sin taxes, the hardest hit was those in the lower income bracket. They also noted that these effects were more pronounced during the winter months, for what should be obvious reasons.

In California, which has always been the hotbed of anti-smoker activity in the US, the weather is good year round. People can compensate, although some cities in that state are pushing for even more extreme bans, including bans on smoking where any non-smoker might reasonably be expected to be, including parking lots, parks, beaches, etc.

With a climate like Canada’s, and the northern border states in the US, where the weather can be inhospitable, to put it mildly, similar bans just aren’t appropriate, nor are they necessary.

What I think this paper demonstrates is simply that man is a social animal. And, before the anti-smoker crusaders invented the hazards of secondhand smoke, smokers and non-smokers could socialize without restriction.

Non-smokers were never forced to enter a smoking establishment. They chose to do so. Many chose to do so to be with smoking friends, despite the alleged risks. That choice has been taken from them. Now, smokers and non-smokers have only one place left to gather; private homes.

And, as the war on smokers continues to escalate, the anti-smoker zealots will soon be calling for interventions in private homes; to protect non-smokers and children, of course.

Or, maybe just to inflict a little more punishment on smokers for their obstinacy and refusal to quit.

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