The Blog

Clearing the Air: Why Smoking Bans Are Bad for Business

The CDC announced last month that it would be undertaking a study on the economic effects of smoking bans. It's being funded with a grant from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Behold the partnership of ideology and profits.
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With a number of states seeming to heed the childhood cautionary words of their mothers, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge would you jump too?" they've so far resisted enacting smoking bans.

So it wasn't surprising to hear the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announce last month that it would be undertaking a study on the economic effects of smoking bans on bar and restaurants -- a partial concern that keeps some from taking this leap. It's being funded with a "partnership grant" from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

This announcement was made by its director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who is better known for his time as NYC's health commissioner. By the time he left to take the job at the CDC his reputation for his personal mission against smoking was cemented in stone.

Pfizer is the manufacturer of a variety of quit smoking aids known as NRTs (nicotine replacement therapies). Smoking bans -- a measure intended, in part, to coerce smokers into quitting -- are such good business for them that they fund drives by anti-smoker groups across the country. If smokers quit they might reach for these NRTs for assistance. Smoking bans shut out the competition over which nicotine product to use.

Behold the partnership of ideology and profits. Might as well have Carrie Nation, paired with makers of hatchets, study the impact of going dry. What would make us believe then that this study will conclude anything other than bans don't harm business to goad the holdouts into jumping? Well, no need to wonder when activists moonlighting as teflon docs have become so arrogant that they tell you the outcome before the study's even started.

Their press release states that the "perception" of harm is a "barrier" to enacting smoking bans. Pfizer's executive vice president says, "We hope that the results of this analysis will advance efforts [to enact bans]." Frieden ends it with, "Making worksites, restaurants, and bars smoke-free [...] doesn't hurt business."

Got that? This isn't a study of economic data to see where it leads. It's a mission to collect the "right" data to knock down something that stands in their agenda's way and prop up a preconceived conclusion. This collection apparently begins with cherry-picking only a certain nine states to study.

They fail to mention that theirs is hardly the first such study -- many that meet their goal (and many that don't). Are previous studies that allege bans are economically beneficial not enough? Rather, it smells very strongly of an effort to put the CDC imprimatur on one to change "perception" via "the highest authority."

After "who would question us?" that leaves any study to the contrary open to one last parting shot: "It's the work of tobacco industry allies."

It's one thing to pull that act -- accusing hospitality groups (and independent economists) of sponsoring studies to fight bans on behalf of the industry -- before a ban is enacted. It's another to stick to that lie after the fact and the owners are looking at empty seats and cash registers that prove their studies well-founded. Are we to believe they'd continue to fight a law -- for another's benefit -- if their business thrived and risk losing it?! There is page upon page of personal testimonials, spanning over a decade and across the country as one state after another enacted bans, saying "The ban killed my business." Are they all in cahoots with and doing the tobacco industry's bidding?

A weaker tactic employed to discredit anyone who claims or shows economic harm is to blame the economy and/or weather and/or gas prices and/or operator incompetence in every case -- and isolate it to boot. It's never the ban to blame for any loss. But when there's an economic hit immediately following each ban every single time it makes those contentions clearly straw-grasping. .At least one prominent leader in the anti-smoker movement, Dr. Simon Chapman, had this to say following a 2007 study that found smoking bans around gambling machines in Victoria, Australia "cut gaming revenue significantly": "[That] is plausibly only explained by the new law. It can't be explained by just seasonal things or whatever. It has been sustained [across the sector]."

In desperate need of attention is the "level playing field." Ban proponents use it constantly to explain the need for bans in every venue and across city lines. Their argument goes that if smoking is banned everywhere it won't provide an advantage to places that have no ban! If that's not a glaringly revealing contradiction to whatever their study will say I don't know what is. If a smoking ban was as popular and business-friendly as the Prohibitionists say it is then what would necessitate a "level playing field"? They're saying, given the choice, smoking allowed venues will attract more customers.

Despite all this they'll be going forward and asking us to accept the integrity of their data alone. But they rely on sales tax data. It's ripe for mischief. It's easily deceptive by glossing over increases in the tax (NYS raised theirs by one-quarter percent immediately following its ban) and/or prices for food and drink that were raised due to lost sales, and/or the hidden effect of places that flout the ban thus continuing to do well. There's the bad habit of lumping restaurants -- including fast food -- in with bars when bars are always hit harder.

Most of all, sales tax speaks to how well the state is doing. It has no acquaintance with how good or bad business is for each individual private owner who has life savings invested in it. Two bars can close and one restaurant makes up for it. When the state owns the bar then maybe sales tax will be a defining factor. Until then, it's profit that tells the real story -- upheld by the many states that exempt casinos for fear it will cut into its profit because casinos, unlike little bars, are undeniable revenue raisers, contributing multi-millions to the budget. If it's bad for state business and ultimately the taxpayers it can't be good for mom n' pop.

Whoever's left, listen to mom, not Big Brother Frieden. Don't jump.