In Canada, the government prohibits smoking in “indoor public spaces,” which, according to the law, consist of bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, etc. The term “indoor public spaces,” however, is misleading: they are public only in the sense that there are other people sharing the space, yet, many of these “indoor public spaces” are owned by private individuals. There are several reasons for protecting their right to choose whether they want a smoke-free or smoke-filled establishment.
Many complain that smoking in bars is encouraging to nonsmokers and exposes them to secondhand smoke. There are many reasons why this argument may not hold. For now, though, it is more important to focus on the demonization of smoking. By categorically prohibiting restaurant owners from allowing their customers to smoke inside, the government prevents people from doing something they may want to do, i.e. to smoke in a bar or own a bar that allows smoking). Smoking is not good or bad “in itself,” but, rather, it is only good or bad according to individual preference, including, but not limited to, the tradeoff of overall health for immediate pleasure, the terms of which some individuals would happily agree with. Moreover, there is an enormous amount of information detailing the economic, health, and social harms associated with smoking available to consumers that allows them to choose intelligently.
A popular argument for banning smoking in indoor public spaces pertains to workers’ rights: smoking indoors threatens employee health and welfare and because many workers do not have the convenience of choosing their place of employment–so the argument goes–allowing it forces them to choose between inhaling toxic cigarette fumes and unemployment.
To some extent, indoor smoking harms workers. Does that really justify banning it?
Closer examination of firm behavior demonstrates that it varies based on the economic implications of “safety.” Between 2008 and 2010, 700 construction workers died from workplace injuries in Canada. In addition, 637 individuals died in manufacturing workplaces and 329 in the transportation industry. Although these numbers may seem surprising, the theory of compensating differentials explains why outcomes in some industries differ from those in others.
According to the compensating wage differentials theory, workers are compensated by firms in a number of ways: these include wages, nonwage benefits, and working conditions. Any given individual has a set of preferences between these forms of compensation. A risk adverse employee, for instance, may be willing to give up much of his paycheck for a little more safety. Someone comfortable with risk, however, could be willing to put herself squarely in danger’s way for better pay. That some individuals are comfortable with more risk explains why construction workers, for instance, agree to work in dangerous settings: higher compensation allays most concerns, whereas lower compensation highlights them. Firms need to offer compensation for labour to attract workers—when they decrease safety, labour supply shrinks and forces the firm to boost wages. Thus, there is a positive correlation between risk and compensation. And there is no authoritatively “ideal” level of risk; instead, there is a multitude of individually preferred ones.
Thus, to attract workers, owners of establishments that allow smoking indoors would need to offer wages high enough to distract employees from the health hazard associated with working there (assuming these concerns are present). For some workers, the increase in pay would offset their health concerns. Similarly, restaurant owners must consider whether indoor smoking discourages consumers from eating at their establishment. If there is growing opposition to smoking, for example, restaurant owners must choose between allowing customers to smoke indoors and losing whatever percentage of their customer base that refuses to eat in an establishment that permits indoor smoking.
Examining both consumer and employee perspectives on smoking indoors lead to a common conclusion: laws dictating firm behavior typically enforce an arbitrary standard and ignore individual preferences. Instead, the government should allow property owners to decide what is best for their respective establishments and let people pursue their individual desires freely.
Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute