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Smoking Bans and Property Rights


no-smoking-symbol-vector1On March 18, 2015 a Mecklenburg Board of Health rule takes effect prohibiting smoking in all government-owned buildings in Mecklenburg County, the City of Charlotte, and surrounding Mecklenburg County towns, as well as any City, County or Town vehicle, grounds, park, greenway, or parkland. A separate County ordinance makes Mecklenburg County parks and buildings on park property tobacco-free, with the exception of some regional parks and County-owned golf courses. The tobacco-free designation includes electronic-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, water pipes, etc., as well as traditional cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

It was funny last week hearing Mecklenburg Health Director Marcus Plescia admit when asked about any possible correlation between smoking bans in parks and on campuses and the cancer rate in society that “we don’t have the numbers” and “bans like these that are outdoors are really more about changing social norms, about changing people’s….um…perception of tobacco use and getting at this issue that smoking is cool.”

Ah yes, government altering behavior to change social norms…the mark of a free country!!

Sarcasm aside, while I absolutely oppose smoking bans enforced on private businesses, I am not entirely convinced that such bans on public property are without some merit or justification, though I think a better compromise could have been found than what the final ordinance turned out to be.

If I own a business, and choose to allow smoking, and the employees choose to work there, and the customers choose to come in, a blanket ban is simply wrong.  No one places a gun to someone’s head and forces them to into an establishment where they might come in contact with smoke. If a restaurant allows smoking and you don’t like smoke, don’t go there. Don’t demand through the power of government that it’s your “right” to go to that restaurant and have them cater to your particular lifestyle choice. The free market will naturally create some establishments that allow smoking and others that do not.  (This was actually the case in Fort Mill, SC before the state mandated smoking bans began.)  This, rather than government interference is the rightful process. Private property rights are key here.

In the matter of parks however, private property rights are not at play. While an entirely separate conversation can be had on the merits of government owned parks, for the purposes of this discussion, the current reality is that they exist and likely aren’t going to be privatized anytime soon.  That said, they are “owned” by government and there are processes in place for the “ownership” to determine the rules and regulations that will be required of patrons.  That process was followed, and the result was a smoking ban. Like it or not.

There is a learning opportunity that can be applied here.

In the lack of a free market, such as with parks, choice by definition becomes limited.  There are no parks competing for your business.  It is of no consequence to government if one park is successful while another is not.  There will not be “smoking” parks and “non-smoking” parks competing for your patronage. The rules government applies are across the board, take it or leave it. You either use the park, or you don’t.

When government owns, runs, or controls something, the result is usually fewer choices and opportunities.  This is true for park smoking rules, this is true for health care, this is true for education, and the list is nearly endless.

As an occasional smoker, I recognize that my “habit” is not appealing to all.  I always take into consideration my surroundings and avoid smoking if I think my doing so will bother anyone.  I also know not everyone is so conscientious.  I would have preferred that there be designated smoking areas in the parks rather than an outright ban, but since we have allowed government to own the parks, the final decision is theirs to make.

Smokers, let it be a lesson that government control has cost you yet another portion of your freedom.  How many other interests of yours does government interfere with?  At what point does the totality of individual freedoms lost cause you to lose your right to your individuality?  At what point do we say “enough!!”?

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