Soon, the Washington, D.C., city council will likely tell business owners in Washington, D.C., that they can no longer allow their own customers to smoke. This is because the Washington, D.C., city council has determined that it, not business owners, knows best how to run a business in Washington, D.C. 

The city council believes that forcing private businesses to go smoke-free will lure more families out to the city’s bars and restaurants. It also believes that a smoking ban protects the city’s bar and restaurant workers. By enacting a “smoke-free workplaces” ordinance, the city council has determined that it, not individual employees, is better equipped to decide whether a given waiter or bartender would prefer to work in a restaurant that does or doesn’t allow smoking.

Similar policies have, of course, already been enacted in California and in New York City. But there’s something particularly disheartening about city officials in the capital of the free world telling their own citizens that they’re no longer permitted to light a cigarette, and that business owners are no longer permitted to run their own operation in a way they see fit.

Here’s the grabber: The movement to make Washington smoke-free isn’t coming from actual Washingtonians. “Smoke Free D.C.” is underwritten by a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-profit “public health” organization based in New Jersey. The movement was given $50,000 by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which is based in New York.

The AFL-CIO of Washington enthusiastically supports the ban, claiming in a press release that “secondhand smoke causes 65,000 deaths per year in the United States.”

That number is absurd. It’s 20 times the estimate of secondhand smoke deaths put out by the Center for Disease Control, and even the CDC’s estimate was recently laughed out of a federal court

If the AFL-CIO really represented the interests of Washington’s bar and restaurant workers, it would realize that a smoking ban in the city will cost both industries jobs. Unlike in California, which initiated a statewide ban, Washington is just a short hop from the Virginia suburbs.  Virginia’s a tobacco-growing state, where a similar ban would face considerably more opposition. A smoking ban in D.C. would simply move D.C.’s smokers to Virginia nightlife, and the accompanying nanny-state culture that comes with these bans will probably further starve the city of the younger permanent residents it claims it wants to attract.

One need only look across the border to Maryland. Montgomery County was one of the first jurisdictions in the country to initiate a public smoking ban, and according to the Restaurant Association of Maryland, smaller bars and restaurants have been wounded by it -- business is off by about 30 percent on weeknights, 50 percent on weekends. Regular smokers and social smokers simply patronized bars in Washington and other areas in Maryland where smoking was permitted. 

A 50-percent drop in weekend business at most independent restaurants means fewer hours and fewer positions for wait staff, cooks, busboys and bartenders. I would guess that every one of those laid-off restaurant workers would gladly trade the negligible, questionable risks associated with secondhand smoke for a return to a regular paycheck. The AFL-CIO apparently sees differently.

The odd thing about all of this is that there are plenty of options for nonsmokers who don’t want to be bothered with secondhand smoke. The market is serving them just fine. Smoke Free D.C. in fact runs a list of smoke-free restaurants on its Web site. 

But that’s not enough. The fact that Washington residents can currently choose between establishments that do or do not allow smoking somehow smacks anti-tobacco activists as oppressive. The goal isn’t to ensure that everyone has options, it’s to make sure everyone is forced to choose the option they’ve deemed appropriate.

Make no mistake, the aim of the well-funded organizations pushing smoking bans across the country has nothing to do with protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. As columnist Steven Chapman points out, the idea that this is about protecting restaurant workers from risk is a canard. The added health risks of secondhand smoke are negligible at best, and they’re certainly no worse than the risks incurred by cab drivers, fishermen and those in similarly dangerous occupations. 

There’s nothing wrong with public health education. Endowments and foundations set up to educate the public on the dangers of smoking, obesity or eating bad clams are fine, even admirable. And we certainly want to encourage science-based studies to determine what we should be eating, drinking or undertaking to best embrace a healthy lifestyle.

But the money behind these smoking bans goes well beyond mere education and advocacy. These groups are now looking to codify that advocacy into law, at the expense of property rights, consumer choice and personal freedom.  

It’s fine for a private organization to tell me I shouldn’t smoke (I don’t, by the way). It’s something entirely different when that organization brings the state in to tell me I’m not allowed to let anyone smoke on my property. 

The former is advocacy. The latter carries whiffs of tyranny.

Radley Balko is the author of the forthcoming Cato Institute paper “Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking.”  He maintains a weblog at

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