Department of Unintended Consequences, a continuing series

by on February 12, 2008 at 7:26 am in Law | Permalink

A rigorous statistical examination has found that smoking bans increase
drunken-driving fatalities. One might expect that a ban on smoking in
bars would deter some people from showing up, thereby reducing the
number of people driving home drunk. But jurisdictions with smoking
bans often border jurisdictions without bans, and some bars may skirt
the ban, so that smokers can bypass the ban with extra driving. There
is also a large overlap between the smoker and alcoholic populations,
which would exacerbate the danger from extra driving. The authors
estimate that smoking bans increase fatal drunken-driving accidents by
about 13 percent, or about 2.5 such accidents per year for a typical

That’s coming out in the Journal of Public Economics, so it might even be true.  Here is the short source article, which surveys other interesting results as well; worth a read. 

1 DK February 12, 2008 at 8:25 am

If stopping drunken driving fatalities was a good idea _regardless of cost_, we wouldn’t have bars at all, would we?

And where are all the papers that add up the benefits as well as the costs of smoking bans? Most of the smokers and ex-smokers I talk to prefer the less smoky bars and reduced drycleaning bills, and it’s opened up a lot of restaurant choices for families and people with asthma.

2 bartman February 12, 2008 at 8:39 am

I was going to say that this report only gives the nanny-staters more impetus to outlaw smoking everywhere, but I didn’t realize one of them would beat me to the punch on the second post.

Ben: why stop at national borders? Isn’t your plight to save mankind from pleasure more important that trifling things like sovereignty?

3 AZ February 12, 2008 at 9:37 am

There doesn’t need to be legislation. In Charlotte (this is in NC, see here there are some restaurants/bars that have gone to no smoking. One is Cheddar’s, which is basically an ABCTGIF type restaurant (Applebees, Bennigans, Chili’s, TGIF). I heard they suffered a little at first with the change but now have a regular crowd that will pay $3 for a bottle of Bud just so they don’t have to deal with the smoke. I have also learned that there is this bar that recently opened, called the Thirsty Beaver, that is non-smoking (no, I’m not checking to see if there is a website to verify its non-smoking status). Our group just voted with our feet (and wallets) to go to a different place for happy hour on Friday after one particularly horrible Friday afternoon where there wasn’t anyone smoking but the place still stunk from the night before.

Seriously, there are plenty of people who like to drink but don’t like to smoke (and even some people who smoke who don’t like to smell like it all the time), so stop waiting for the government to enact legislation banning smoking in bars and open a non-smoking bar.

And to people who want to stop drunken driving at all costs, it would probably be easier to outlaw cars than drinking. It’s pretty easy to see if someone is driving a car, but more difficult to see if someone is drinking and driving – plus, even if there are no bars one can still drink at someone else’s house and drive home. Just to carry it to the completely absurd level.

4 Ron Hardin February 12, 2008 at 10:38 am

Drunk driving has long been recognized as a transportation problem, not an alcohol problem. See for example J.R.Gusfield, _The Culture of Public Problems : Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order_ (U Chicago 1981)

His career is studying the creating and taking political ownership of “public problems.”

Drunk driving was formerly a personal moral failing, and not a public problem at all.

5 Keith February 12, 2008 at 10:56 am

“I do care that I wake up coughing the next day, have to pay to have my clothes dry-cleaned, and generally find the flavors of food at restaurants less appealing when people are smoking.

So yes, we demonize smokers, because their habit is inconsiderate and imposes a lot of externalities that they do not pay for even with their taxes.”

This is a common misuse of the externalities argument. The fact is, there is not a good case to be made for smoking bans, because the externalities all take place on private property, and the property owner has incentives to efficiently weigh the costs and benefits associated with the externality.

After all, you still went to the bars and restaurants that allowed smoking, didn’t you? Clearly, the smokers valued smoking more than you valued avoiding smoke, and the socially optimal decision was to allow smoking.

Therefore, attempts to ban smoking are abuse of an unpopular minority, because they override the balancing of costs and benefits that property owners already do.

And it certainly cannot be socially efficient to have zero bars and restaurants that allow smoking. Clearly, at the margin in a “smoking ban regime”, it would be socially efficient to go from zero to one bar/restaurant that allows smoking.

6 Michael Bishop February 12, 2008 at 11:36 am

For a long time I’ve been arguing that we should sell smoking licenses instead of banning smoking. We could adjust the price to achieve an optimal mix of smoking and non-smoking establishments.

7 Chumpo February 12, 2008 at 1:24 pm

If I remember correctly, central in the argument for banning smoking in NYC was that workers in the service industry should not have to be subjected to a dangerous working environment. This seems like a reasonable point to me.

What’s really amazing to me though, is that no one here mentions the costs associated with illness related to smoking and second hand smoke. These are costs borne by all of us, not just smokers. Why should I have to help foot the bill for the tragic consequences of the insanely stupid choices made by this minority, Keith? Perhaps a waiver releasing the tax payers and insurance providers from the liability of future medical expenses? But what about second hand smoke then?

That said, I like the idea of auctions provided that the establishments that allow smoking are exclusively owner operated.

8 aaron February 12, 2008 at 1:50 pm

Chumpo, I believe health problems related to secondhand smoke are confined to the population of people who live with smokers. Public secondhand smoke is pretty much just matter of aesthetics.

9 M1EK February 12, 2008 at 2:25 pm

“And it certainly cannot be socially efficient to have zero bars and restaurants that allow smoking.”

Well, at least the ideologues have learned a little bit. The problem is that the history shows that before bans went into place, the number of bars and restaurants that allowed smoking was nearly 100% – despite a population which greatly desired otherwise.

Would you go back to the days when every single restaurant apart from the weird hippie ones had a useless non-smoking “section”? That provided a hell of a lot less social efficiency than the banned-everywhere world does.

10 someone February 12, 2008 at 2:50 pm

For the folks that think that private property owners should be able to do whatever they want. You do remember that smokers costs tax payers incalculable amounts of money in health care costs?
Don’t try to tell the non smokers that they are just innocent bystanders who have nothing to gain or lose.

11 Rex Rhino February 12, 2008 at 3:12 pm

What we have with smoking bans is puritanism. In the old days, it was enough to call something “sinful” in order to get people fired up to ban it… however, nowadays in our supposedly secular society, we can’t come right out and say “punish the sinners”… We have to make some sort of vauge arguement about public welfare to justify the same prohibitionist human needs.

Arguements about public welfare are not supposed to actually mean anything… it is a psychological crutch and a political tool to make puritanism less religious and therefore sociallly acceptable in a secular society. If you proved that second hand smoke was 100% safe and caused no health problems, if you proved that smoking bans cause drunk driving deaths to double or triple, it wouldn’t matter. The prohibitionists don’t want to hear your arguement, because deep down smoking is a *MORAL* issue, not a public health issue. Smoking is sinful, smoking is disgusting and declasse, therefore smoking needs to be banned. The public health arguements are, pardon the bad pun, a smoke screen.

If I remember correctly, central in the argument for banning smoking in NYC was that workers in the service industry should not have to be subjected to a dangerous working environment. This seems like a reasonable point to me.

Then you feel that it would be reasonable for NYC to ban construction work, ban boxing, and ban film photography darkrooms, all of which have equal or greater health risk than being in a smoke filled bar?

I don’t suspect you will agree, but I suspect that is because construction work, boxing, or film photography aren’t considered low-class or sinful like smoking.

12 Rex Rhino February 12, 2008 at 3:34 pm

For the folks that think that private property owners should be able to do whatever they want. You do remember that smokers costs tax payers incalculable amounts of money in health care costs?
Don’t try to tell the non smokers that they are just innocent bystanders who have nothing to gain or lose.

If society decides to socialize the cost of medicine, then society paying for smokers health problems is simply a part of the redistribution. If society isn’t willing to subsidize the health problems caused by lifestyle, then society shouldn’t be in the buisness of subsidizing healthcare. To each according to his need, and smokers have greater need.

Should we ban mountain climbing because it is a high-risk activity and costs taxpayers extra money? Should we ban hockey because it is a high risk activity and costs the taxpayers extra money? Should we ban burgers and fries and sugary sodas? Should we have a manditory state-run exercise program that all people would be compelled by law to participate in, because that could save 20-50% of all healthcare costs. In fact, other than a handful of purely genetic diseases, most illness comes from lifestyle choices and activities.

The reason why we have smoking bans, but not hockey bans, is that smoking is considered very “sinful” and declasse/trashy, hockey less so.

And if government funding healthcare means that government can micromanage our personal lifestyle choices, then that is a fantastic arguement for why government shouldn’t provide healthcare. Socialisism will inevitably look to micromanage people’s lives in order to save money.

13 c. murphy February 12, 2008 at 4:29 pm

If the increase in drunk driving fatalities is caused by driving between jurisdictions with and without smoking bans, why charaterize the increase as being caused by smoking bans in some jurisdictions? Logically it can just as validly be argued that the increase is caused by the abscence of smoking bans in other jurisdictions. One would hope that a tenured economics professor would have the minimal grasp of basic logic necessary to recognize this.

14 SS February 12, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Another factor besides the difference between counties is the rate of consumption. The oral fixation of cigarettes is subconsciously replaced by consuming more beverages and leading to an increase in drunk driving.

15 Robert February 13, 2008 at 4:57 am

If Coase is correct, shouldn’t all those smokers out there be trying to pay me (a nonsmoker) off so they could have smoking in bars? Hey, my vote’s for sale! If the price is right, I’ll put up with your demonized selves, or go to some other smoke-free bar. But all I see so far is a bunch of whining. Whining don’t pay the bills, baby!

16 Christina February 13, 2008 at 12:59 pm

The idea that smoking bans in bars and restaurants is a workplace safety issue is absurd. Having worked several years in the restaurant industry I can say that I’ve never seen, before or since, a population where smoking is near universal. Bartenders, waiters, managers, cooks, busboys, hostesses, they all smoke. Hell, I started smoking because I found that taking smoke breaks was acceptable, while merely sitting on my duff while others smoked around me wasn’t. And this wasn’t even inside the restaurant, where a ban might interfere. This was out back next to the trash dumpsters.

Man, I really hope VA’s House of Delegates smacks down the proposed smoking ban again.

17 mike February 13, 2008 at 3:46 pm

C Murphy – Because establishments that allow smoking are the control. In this experiment, the new variable was the ban, so the ban created this situation.

Your argument is akin to saying that experimental group participants in a pharmacological study only perceived benefits to a certain substance because people in the control group did not.

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