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March 16, 2007

Government for the People = Smoke-free Restaurants

George Wenschhof

Our representative form of government and our economic system is the envy of every country in the world. However, developing, implementing and maintaining this system, where government and business work together to meet the needs of the people, is a never-ending process.

Government and business have been intertwined since the birth of our country with one ongoing public debate focused on when to allow a market-driven economy versus the need for government regulation.

The public and private sector have grappled with this while striving to meet the demand for services. Each realizes it is the public who has the final say when it exercises its right to vote and decide how to spend its earned income.

This is why government regulation and business plans have changed at different points in our history. The approach to issues of concern and the demand for certain products at an affordable price have fueled the evolution of the United States since its inception.

In recent times Republican Party leaders have argued about the size of government and the amount of taxation needed to pay for these services, while Democratic Party leaders have expressed the importance of various government regulations to address the needs that exist.

Business and government cannot survive independent of each other; so this continuous debate is healthy for our country. The main issue is how to provide the services the public desires in an efficient, affordable, fair and ethical manner.

Therein lies the rub: determining what issues are important to the public and how best to address them. The Keynesian laissez-faire "hands-off" economic system makes sense to business owners. But child-labor, fair labor, and product safety laws, along with safe working conditions, make sense to the public. Here is where the balancing act between government and business comes into play.

Let's just look at one current issue of concern, smoking in restaurants and bars. This issue shows the dynamic interaction of government, business and the public.

For the longest time, smoking tobacco was an accepted personal choice and also big-business in our country. It was common to see people smoking in just about any place imaginable - at work, restaurants, the ball park, in any mode of mass-transit, on the street, and, of course, at home.

I personally have quit three times since I smoked my first cigarette in 1968 at the age of 15. My first two attempts failed after six and seven years. It has now been a little over three years since I smoked a cigarette.

The economic boom provided by this industry is not something I will discuss in detail; suffice it to say, it had - and still has - an impact on our overall economy by providing employment and supplying a product to meet demand.

Then along came studies that clearly show the relationship between smoking and the occurrence of cancer. Further studies concluded there were also significant risks to non-smokers by exposure to second-hand smoke. Since these revelations, much discussion has taken place that resulted in changes to where one lights up.

At the urging of the public, our court system worked at discovering what the tobacco industry knew and when did they know it. The result was multi-million dollar penalties against the industry.

The U.S. Surgeon General has issued public warnings pertaining to the effects of smoking and government has required tobacco manufacturers to include warning labels on its product. The tobacco companies responded with clever marketing programs promoting "Light" and "Ultra-Light" cigarettes.

While government has consistently raised taxes on the sale of tobacco, it has stopped short of banning the sale. However, public warnings against its use and the increased cost of tobacco have dramatically impacted the economic fortunes of this industry.

This leads one to ask why government should depend on a revenue stream from a product it is trying to get people not to use. Governor Martin O'Malley asked this question recently when an increase in the cigarette tax was floated as a way to raise revenue.

The battles over where people are allowed to smoke began years ago and continue to evolve. The ban in restaurants started with requiring them to have smoke-free areas for their customers.

Those who oppose the smoking ban in restaurants say it violates their rights and that it should be up to individual restaurant owners to determine if they want to allow it. These opponents argue that if a customer did not like smoking they would be free to choose another establishment. At the very least, they feel that bars that serve food should be exempt from this ban for many folks enjoy a smoke with their cocktail. This is an argument for a market-driven economy.

The momentum to ban smoking in restaurants has continued to grow. It is based on concerns people have on health and safety related issues and is an argument for government regulation.

When Governor O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore, he opposed a ban on smoking in restaurants for he felt it unfairly singled out one city in our state. As governor, he has sent a clear message to state legislators that if they present him with a bill banning smoking in restaurants state-wide, he will sign it into law.

I have listened to the argument against the ban and can sympathize for I frequent and enjoy many restaurants that allow smoking. However, I agree with those who support the ban. It is time our state representatives move forward and send this bill to the governor.

As I thought about this issue I was reminded of a quote attributed to Winston Churchill. To paraphrase, he said "while democracy is not perfect, it is the best form of government in the world today."

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