Sunday, January 3, 2010

Smoking Bans in New York City

Six years after New York City passed a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, it is easier than ever to find smokers partying indoors like it’s 1999, or at least 2002. In November, called it “the worst kept secret in New York nightlife” that “smoking is now allowed in numerous nightspots, specifically just about any and every lounge and club with a doorman and a rope.” A few weeks later,, a blog about New York clubs and bars, posted a “smoker’s guide to N.Y.C. nightlife.”

“Everyone looks the other way,” said Billy Gray, 25, a reporter for Guest of a Guest, who says that he knows precisely which high-end bars and lounges, most of them in the meatpacking district or Lower East Side, will let him smoke inside. Far from deterring smoking indoors, the ban simply adds an allure to it, said Mr. Gray, a half-pack-a-day smoker.

“It’s more of an illicit thrill now,” he said. “Like when you were a teenager and snuck a beer in your parents’ basement.”
Thus, as with other prohibitions, smoking bans breed disrespect for the law.

Is a prohibition ever the right policy?  What about the ban on murder?  Take as given that this one is a good idea.  So what's the difference between banning murder and banning smoking in restaurants?

Everyone agrees that murder inflicts grave harm one someone who cannot easily avoid that harm.  Smoking in restuarants does not share this feature.  Even taking the evidence on second-hand smoke at face value, the effects from occasional expsoure are trivial, and anyone who wants to avoid them can stay home or patronize non-smoking restaurants.

Smoking bans are also miguided because they assume restaurants and bars are "public" and should therefore be subject to regulation by government.   Instead, any privately owned establishment should be regarded as fully private, with owners allowed to offer smoking versus non-smoking experiences, as they wish.


Economists Do It With Models said...

As someone who has been in New York frequently both in 2002 and 2009, I find the claim that it easier than ever to find smoking indoors to be questionable. Maybe it's happening more in the places where it is "secretly" allowed, but I highly doubt that that increase outweighs the decrease of smoking in establishments that actually follow the law.

That point aside, it is my understanding that the justification (and the wording) of much of the anti-smoking legistation has to do with protecting employees of the establishments as much as the patrons, since it's much harder to make the case that employees only suffer occasional exposure to secondhand smoke and can come and go as they please. (While I do get that these employees could just choose to go work at a non-smoking company, it's difficult to tell people that their employment options are severly limited because they don't want to be breathing in carcinogens all day.)

I do think that the market could have sorted this out on its own, but only if people and establishments viewed the choice of "smoking" or "non-smoking" from a day 1 perspective. The fact that people- both managers and customers- were accustomed to (and therefore biased by) the "smoking" status quo, there was little incentive for anyone to change their policies on their own, even though many individuals are now pleased with the lack of smoking in bars and restaurants and say that they would no longer frequent an establishment where smoking is prevalent. It's somewhat unclear how one would encourage an appropriate market outcome here, since people are now biased in the other direction because of the bans on smoking.

Michael said...

I've been sitting here trying to imagine what the balance between smoking and non-smoking areas would look like if smoking were suddenly invented today, but with us having the knowledge about its effects that we do now.

Imagine being in a small restaurant and lighting up when no one else had experienced that before - I think you'd be incurring quite a social cost and getting a lot of dirty looks from other patrons.

So I think a reason that without smoking laws there was an "inefficient" outcome is that the social norms for smoking developed with significantly incomplete information. Before the laws, these norms seemed to be changing, but fairly slowly.

One thing the laws may be doing is enabling the social norms to change more rapidly than they otherwise would by signalling society's disapproval of smoking in certain places.

It certainly seems that politely asking people not to smoke near you gets a much more favourable response than it did even a decade ago. We've known the dangers for quite a few years, but the bigger changes in how people behave regarding smoking seem to have occurred with the introduction of these types of laws.

I think its unlikely that the current laws are producing an efficient outcome either, but I'm not sure they're a completely bad idea.

Anonymous said...

@Economists Do It With Models

I find your use of "bias" to be quite biased.

In the first instance when you state "The fact that people- both managers and customers- were accustomed to (and therefore biased by) the "smoking" status quo, there was little incentive for anyone to change their policies on their own..." you seem to mean that managers and customers didn't particularly mind smoking at bars and chose to allow smokers to enjoy the casual puff.

This begs the question why the government had to intervene and forcefully "re-bias" these folks? The original "bias" was determined by shop owners making decisions for how they wanted their establishments to function. If they made bad decisions, they'd be punished by the market, and if they made good decisions they'd be rewarded by the market. This "bias" was mutually agreed upon by both customers and owners. But the government obviously knows best and must re-educate its populace to the proper "bias"...

Anonymous said...

perhaps the owners of the restaurant do not "own" - in a property sense - the air within the establishment.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous

Wait - Does that mean you're suggesting a restaurant owner obtain a permit before running an air-conditioning unit? God-forbid he manipulates the air within his walls...

Or, more seriously, does this imply also that someone cannot smoke within his own residence since he does not own the "air" in his house?

If the restaurant owner cannot decide what to do with his own air, who should? I guess the government should manage his air since it has a brilliant managerial track record...

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