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Week of 22 November 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 13

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Banning smoking in bars: protecting the public’s health or infringing on civil liberties?

By Brian Fitzgerald

As the Boston Health Commission considers a regulation that bans smoking in the city’s 625 bars by the end of the year, the Massachusetts Hospitality Association (MHA) is blasting the plan, saying it infringes on smokers’ right of assembly and constitutes harassment of a minority.

Michael Siegel Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
  Michael Siegel Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Citing financial concerns, some bar owners at a City Hall hearing on November 18 also said that such an ordinance would put a dent in Boston’s nightlife and tourism during a period when the economy is already soft. However, Michael Siegel, an associate professor in the BU School of Public Health, says the hospitality industry’s arguments are flawed and that his 1997 study on smoking and nonsmoking bar patrons shows that bar business would remain stable or even increase after a ban.

Siegel will discuss the controversy in a Food for Thought Luncheon Series lecture on Tuesday, December 3, at noon in Marsh Chapel’s basement Robinson Room. Entitled Banning Smoking in Bars and Restaurants: Protecting the Public’s Health or Infringing on Civil Liberties? the talk takes place a day after the public comment period officially ends on Boston’s draft proposal to ban smoking. A vote of the commission’s seven-member board, scheduled to take place soon afterward, is expected to approve the ban, which would include all workplaces in Boston.

“It shows that the city realizes that secondhand smoke is an occupational health hazard,” says Siegel, a professor of social and behavioral sciences. “Everyone deserves to work in a workplace that is safe.”

The adverse effects of secondhand smoke are now well recognized, he says, pointing out that it causes about 53,000 deaths a year in nonsmokers. Because the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health declared that involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke should be eliminated in the workplace, many local governments, including 200 communities in Massachusetts, have prohibited smoking on job sites -- public and private. So have two states: California and Delaware. A few major cities have banned smoking in all restaurants and bars, including Santa Fe, Honolulu, and Boulder, Colo. Boston would be the largest city thus far to enact such a ban, although Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also considering a similar regulation for New York City.

Workers at risk
A 1993 study by Siegel, Involuntary Smoking in the Restaurant Workplace: A Review of Employee Exposure and Health Effects, assessed the potential health hazard of environmental tobacco exposure for bar and restaurant employees. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was a prime motivation behind Boston’s current restaurant smoking restrictions, which were enacted in 1998.

“My study found that levels of environmental tobacco smoke in bars were 3.9 to 6.1 times higher than in office workplaces of other businesses and 4.4 to 4.5 times higher than in residences with at least one smoker,” says Siegel. In other words, bartenders and waitresses in smoky bars come home with more than just clothes reeking of smoke: they also are at higher risk of developing smoking-related illnesses. He points to two studies, in Missouri and in Illinois, suggesting that the risk of lung cancer is approximately 50 percent higher among food service workers than among the general population.

In an opinion piece in the October 21 Boston Globe, however, Frank Bell, a member of the MHA and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, points out that because of the 1998 ordinance, Boston restaurant owners and operators have already spent millions of dollars on renovations to comply with a buffer between bar areas and dining areas. “We smokers have reasonably refrained from lighting up in public places where nonsmokers have no choice about sharing the air,” he writes. “But a bar or a restaurant is not a train station. It is a private business where people can choose to spend their time or money or not. Smokers have a right to congregate and socialize, just as nonsmokers do. Those who prefer a smoke-free environment can choose the many nonsmoking establishments that already cater to that market.”

Siegel says that Bell’s claims are ludicrous. “A bar is a workplace, and from the perspective of the worker, he has a right to work in a safe environment,” he says. “Nobody would say that we should not have regulations to protect workers on the Big Dig. Who would say that a construction worker shouldn’t have to wear a harness when he’s up 15 stories in the air -- that such a regulation is an infringement on the rights of business owners? It’s a safety issue, and it’s certainly the government’s right to enact standards that you have to follow. I’ve never heard anyone argue that restaurants should not be subject to health regulations, or say that restaurant employees should not have to wash their hands before they serve food, or if restaurants want to serve meat that has salmonella in it, that’s their right. There’s no difference between those things and providing an atmosphere that’s full of carcinogens.”

In fact, he says, environmental tobacco smoke is a far more serious health issue than salmonella. “Secondhand smoke kills 53,000 people every year,” he says. “Salmonella kills less than 100.”

Money talks
As for the economic hardship argument -- that a smoking ban would hurt nightlife in Boston at a time when the economy continues to reel, a 1997 study by Siegel and Lois Biener, a researcher for the Center for Survey Research at UMass-Boston, refutes that claim. The study, Behavior Intentions of the Public after Bans on Smoking in Restaurants and Bars, published in the American Journal of Public Health, finds that two-thirds of the people surveyed reported that their patronage of restaurants and bars would not change if these facilities were to become smoke-free. Of those predicting a change in their bar patronage, the proportion predicting increased use was almost twice as large as the proportion predicting decreased use.

“There is a lot of other research out there demonstrating that smoke-free bar and restaurant ordinances did not have a significant economic impact in several communities,” Siegel says. “Although everyone predicted that there would be these huge declines in restaurant and bar sales, it just hasn’t happened.”

Some still insist that lighting up a cigarette is intrinsic to bar culture, but Siegel says this image will go up in smoke as well. “It used to be common to see people smoking in movie theaters and airplanes, but social norms change,” he says. “Don’t forget, spittoons were an integral part of our culture once.”

Siegel also points to a report the city of Boston released on September 24 showing no dip in Boston restaurant sales after the partial smoking ban was enacted in 1998. “The majority of the public wants smoke-free bars and restaurants,” he says. “In fact, there is a huge number of people who don’t go to bars specifically because they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. People are afraid that if we eliminate smoking in bars, some of the customers may no longer come there. The reality is, there are a lot of people who are currently avoiding restaurants and bars because of smoke. If you ban smoking, they’re going to start coming. Basically, it will offset the decline in business. The observation from my study and from other studies is that there has been basically no impact.”


22 November 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations