The Indianapolis City-County Council is considering an ordinance that would prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants. Public hearings have been going on for several weeks. If the ordinance finally passes as proposed, it would be one of the strictest prohibitions of its kind in the nation.
Not only would smoking be completely banned in all bars, restaurants, and public buildings, even some outdoor venues would be affected. Smoking would also be banned in public parks, for example.
It’s an idea whose time has come. Although public input is certainly important, the council should finally vote for the health and safety of the public, even if the public objects. Here’s why:
Unlike other laws that are supposed to protect public safety, such as the seat belt law, banning smoking would protect members of the public from the dangerous habits of others. If smoking harmed only the smoker, then such an ordinance would be ill-advised.
It is especially necessary in order to protect the health of innocent children who have not made the decision to start smoking, yet who have to endure the toxic gasses from nearby cigarettes in public places, such as parks and restaurants.
It would also help to protect children from the bad habits of their smoking parents, who seem oblivious to the fact that cigarette smoke is harmful and bothersome to their offspring when they are forced to sit in the smoking section of a restaurant so their parents can light up after dinner.
Thus far, there have been more opponents speaking out at the public hearings than supporters of the proposed ban. This is understandable, since the opponents are the ones who feel they have the most to lose if the ordinance passes. Many of the opponents are bar and restaurant owners who fear a loss of business.
Some hospitality entrepreneurs believe that banning smoking in restaurants and bars, especially those near county lines, would drive away customers. They say smokers will opt to go to neighboring counties where smoking bans are not in effect.
One solution to this problem would be for those neighboring counties, such as Johnson County, to pass anti-smoking ordinances of their own. It’s probably too much to ask for the state legislature to pass a law against smoking in public; they can’t even get together on a daylight saving time bill that costs the state nothing and would attract business to the state. So smoking bans will have to remain a hodgepodge of local ordinances for now.
Even without the help of the surrounding counties, however, it has been demonstrated in other cities and counties across the nation where smoking has already been banned that business is not generally harmed. Some establishments report an initial downturn in business, but it soon picks up again as patrons come in from outside the area to avoid smoke-filled public rooms.
Others argue that enforcing a limitation on a legal activity is intrusive. Admittedly, the government often intrudes into private matters where it has no business. Witness the Terri Schiavo fiasco last month. But smoking bans are not simply attempts at protecting us from ourselves. They are meant to protect those who choose not to smoke from the harmful effects of nearby smokers.
In that sense, smoking bans are more like battery laws that protect the innocent from a physical assault by an aggressor. Tobacco smoke may be slower to act than a punch, but it may still be just as dangerous, especially to children.
The proposed ordinance, being so strict, has plenty of room for compromise. Allowing smoking in designated areas of establishments where only adults are allowed is one possible compromise. At the very least, even if the proposed ordinance is defeated as is, every locality should adopt a prohibition on allowing children under the age of 18 to be seated within the smoking section of restaurants.
If no one under the age of 21 is allowed to enter a bar, then no one under the age of 18 should be permitted to enter a smoking area.