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COLUMN RIGHT / BRUCE HERSCHENSOHN

It's Land of the Free--for Nonsmokers : Instead of bans in all restaurants, let the free market work, giving everyone a choice.

August 22, 1993|BRUCE HERSCHENSOHN | Bruce Herschensohn, a former television commentator and senatorial candidate, is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute

Last week I went to one of my favorite restaurants--almost. When I walked to the entrance I saw a new sign in the window: "This is a Completely Nonsmoking Restaurant." So I went somewhere else.

I'm sure that other people went in for the very reason I did not. It's entirely possible that the restaurant gained more customers than it lost by its new policy. At the same time, I was able to look for a restaurant that permitted smoking. After trying two more, one also nonsmoking and the other with a full smoking section, I found a restaurant with immediate seating where I would be allowed to smoke. This is as it should be. Restaurant owners were making their own decisions, and customers were freely deciding where to eat.

That's called a free market. Since nonsmoking has become so popular, probably the free market will bring about many more nonsmoking restaurants.

But the Los Angeles City Council does not believe in the free market and its keystone, the idea of property rights. It wants to ensure that nonsmokers are able to choose from all 7,000 privately owned restaurants in Los Angeles for their 100% enjoyment, while smokers will have none.

The council members who voted against the right of restaurateurs to allow smoking cited an Environmental Protection Agency report that secondhand smoke (which used to just be called smoke) is a cancer risk to nonsmokers. But this EPA report was not based on accepted scientific methodology. It was concocted to support a predetermined conclusion.

The EPA reviewed 30 studies on this question, 24 of which showed no increased risk of lung cancer to nonsmokers. No problem for the EPA: It used selective data, reanalyzed studies and reduced its statistical confidence standard, which is customarily required for such studies.

At the same time the EPA was up to these tricks, the largest study ever made on secondhand smoke was released, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. The study reported that nonsmokers had no significant increased risk of lung cancer from exposure to secondhand smoke. The EPA ignored this and a similar study that also reported no significant increased risk.

Almost ignored were several studies of actual air-quality measurements in restaurants that reported that people who frequent restaurants with smoking sections would be exposed to the equivalent of one cigarette per year. This is far less a risk than the auto emissions likely to be encountered while driving to a restaurant for dinner.

If the EPA used the same unorthodox techniques while investigating other commodities, it would have to ban hamburgers, peanut butter, broccoli, mustard, coffee, doughnuts, fireplaces, chlorinated drinking water and many other products as Class A carcinogens. Certainly alcoholic beverages would be prohibited.

Along with personal liberty, economic prosperity suffers when government interferes with the free market. In May, Price Waterhouse released a study concluding that a tough no-smoking law in California could cost billions of dollars in lost tourism, conventions and food and retail sales. This not only entails lost business, but lost jobs, lower salaries and loss of sales and income tax revenues.

But you might say, "Look! I don't want to be forced to breathe smoke when I go to a restaurant!" Then don't. Go to a nonsmoking restaurant, or a restaurant that effectively separates smokers from nonsmokers. But don't demand that smoking be banned in every restaurant in the city despite the wishes of those who own them. It's a free country. But it won't be for long if Americans become accustomed to bullying each other over personal habits. Remember: Nonsmokers are only one of many majorities whose lives can be made more comfortable (in a very narrow sense) by passing a prohibitive law on a minority.

I'm increasingly convinced that there is a prejudice against smoking that has less to do with health than with smell. Anti-smokers earnestly want reports to say that secondhand smoke is deadly. They are angered, rather than relieved by contrary reports. Yet they continue to frequent smoking restaurants, suggesting that they don't really believe their own propaganda.

All smoke, of course, is secondhand. Should there be a law against all secondhand smoke? Pretty soon, the way things are going, flags will be all we can burn legally.

I wish our federal, state and local governments would spend more time balancing their budgets, providing more police protection and combatting economic ruin, less time regulating our daily behavior and cease altogether infringing on the rights of property owners.

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