Crossing the Line: DeKalb County’s New Ban on Smoking

By Chris Carr

Right or wrong, needed or unneeded, government regulates commerce all of the time. Government will mandate, for instance, how much pollution may be released into the air, how many handicapped spaces must be included in a parking lot at a shopping center and whether warning labels must be used on particular products. Usually, these regulations do not cross the line into micromanaging private industry. Typically, politicians have not dared to tread into the realm of telling a business how it should operate and what it will or won’t sell.

Apparently, the DeKalb County Commission doesn’t play by these time-honored rules. They recently stepped over the line by banning smoking in the private sector and began a new era of dictating what private businesses may or may not do with perfectly legal products. Although I’m not a smoker myself, and I certainly prefer not to breathe second-hand smoke, DeKalb has stuck its nose, so to speak, where it doesn’t belong.

On the surface, I’m sure that many of the county’s citizens will be relieved that they will now be able to go to their favorite restaurant (bars are exempt) without having to breathe cigarette and cigar smoke. After a recent 5-2 decision by the DeKalb County Commission, smoking is now banned in all DeKalb county government buildings and in private office buildings and restaurants in the unincorporated parts of the county. The ban goes into effect in February.

The ban on smoking in public buildings is fine. DeKalb certainly is well within its rights to manage its own buildings as it sees fit. What should be troubling to all, however, is that the Commission went one step further and started managing private businesses.

The smoking ban in the private sector is problematic for three reasons. First, governments should not be telling private businesses whether they can or cannot allow legal products to be used at or in their businesses. Much like the recent high profile class action suits against “Big Tobacco,” McDonald’s and the gun industry, bans such as these are typically purely political in nature and fly in the face of free markets and good public policy.

Allowing governments to ban a legal product, no matter how unpopular, is a slippery slope. Today, it’s cigarettes. Tomorrow, when the political winds have changed and a different set of special interests come on the scene, what will it be? Will it be alcohol? After all, some people abuse it and drink and drive. Will it be perfume? After all, some people are allergic to certain scents. Will it be car speakers? After all, nothing is more annoying than having your car shake because of the music coming from the car next to you. Targeting certain groups may be politically convenient, but it sets a terrible precedent. What will the next “politically incorrect” product be? It might be the one you sell.

Second, this ban is a prime example of government trying to unnecessarily “take care of us.” Thanks, but we don’t really need the help because we have one of the most powerful tools available in the marketplace – that of choice. Quite simply, people can choose not to frequent businesses that sell products or create environments that people don’t like. For example, individuals can choose not to go to the restaurant that allows widespread smoking. If enough people quit going there or never go in the first place, the restaurant will close or (if its owners are smart businesspeople) it will ban smoking on its own. It may, however, draw a large number of smokers, in which case the owner may decide that this is the market he or she wishes to serve. That, after all, is the beauty of capitalism.

Even as an employee, many choices exist. First and foremost, when applying for a job, that individual may choose not to work at a restaurant or office that allows smoking. If already employed, the employee may choose to fight to have the policy changed, and if enough workers object, management hopefully will be responsive and amend the policy. This has happened already in many offices and restaurants around the country. Or, the employee could find other work. It may not be the preferred choice, but it is a choice nonetheless.

DeKalb has too many other issues to sort through without having to worry about what products are being used legally in DeKalb’s private businesses. They need to remember that government has certain limited functions. Micromanaging private businesses isn’t one of them.

Chris Carr is vice president and general counsel of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 10, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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