RALEIGH Ė "People who go to a public restaurant should have a smoke-free environment."
This statement from Rep. Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson), recently elected as one of the NC House majority whips, accompanied his introduction Thursday of a bill that would ban smoking in nearly all restaurants in North Carolina. It is also meaningful in ways that Holliman clearly did not intend. Letís parse the statement to glean its various levels of meaning.
First, what exactly is a "public restaurant"? Hollimanís bill would exclude private clubs from the prohibition, as if the important distinction between restaurants for the purposes of state regulation is whether one has to be a member to eat at them. Thatís nonsense. A private restaurant is a private restaurant, regardless of whether it requires prior membership or accepts all who come in. It is a private business. It is on private property.
As such, its smoking policies are nobodyís business except those who run the place and those who choose to patronize it. A "public restaurant," in this context, would be one operated on government property. It might be appropriate for lawmakers, representing the public, to regulate the policies of such a public restaurant, in the sense that taxpayers of the state should not be forced to subsidize or be associated with activities (smoking, drinking, serving the wrong kind of barbecue, etc.) that they might find immoral or distasteful.
Second, consider the phrase "people who go to a public restaurant." Obviously, the decision to go into a given establishment is entirely voluntary. No one in North Carolina is forced to eat in the same room as a smoker. It is simply false to suggest that current law prevents North Carolinians from exercising their freedom to patronize only smoke-free environments. They already have that right. What Holliman really seeks to do is to take away the right of other people to go to a restaurant to eat and smoke.
Third, letís study this notion of a "smoke-free environment." Obviously, Holliman believes that breathing secondhand smoke is associated with fatal disease. Unlike the link between smoking and disease, however, the connection with secondhand smoke is more tenuous. It certainly does not qualify as a major public health issue in North Carolina, because the exposure is unambiguously voluntary (you cannot become addicted to secondhand smoke) and highly unlikely to lead to serious health consequences.
Fourth, there is a separate danger associated with well-meaning but flawed attempts to regulate private behavior. Secondhand smoke is really an issue of manners and politeness. If your smoking annoys someone else in an enclosed space, it would be polite for you to stop. It is polite for restaurants to designate smoking and no-smoking sections, and for patrons to respect the designations.
We should not seek to supplant these private arrangements, these elements of civil society, with coercive government regulation. It sets a bad precedent for the future and erodes the notion that there are many behaviors that may be unwise, obnoxious, or even immoral Ė but should not be illegal. Otherwise, maybe next time it will be your unpopular behavior that becomes the target of legislative overreaching.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.