Private choices have public consequences.
People who worry that Minnesota's new indoor smoking ban will destroy the tavern industry are going to have front-row seats for a remarkable natural experiment over the next few months. As reporter Kevin Giles wrote in Saturday's Star Tribune, bar owners on both sides of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border already are keeping tabs on the flow of customers between smoke-free Minnesota and smoke-friendly Wisconsin.
But let's remember that there are other benchmarks to measure whether a smoking ban is a good idea. Here are a few: lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, childhood asthma, high blood pressure, male impotence, routine colds and illnesses, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, bladder cancer, employee absenteeism, medical spending on preventable disease and skyrocketing health-insurance premiums.
The health of Minnesota's hospitality industry is important, but it's a sideshow to the main event -- the health of Minnesota's people.
On the question of whether smoking bans hurt bars and restaurants, there are conflicting studies. On the health and medical indicators, the evidence is clear: Smoking bans reduce tobacco use, cut the public's exposure to second-hand smoke, help smokers quit smoking if they want to quit, reduce smoking-related illness and help bring down health-care costs.
We understand the pleasure that smokers derive from a cigarette with a cocktail, and we certainly have no quarrel with the state's bar and restaurant owners.
But it's a mistake to cast this issue mainly as a debate over personal choice and individual liberty. A 2005 study by the Minnesota Health Department and several partners found that huge numbers of Minnesotans are exposed to second-hand smoke every year -- even nonsmokers who try to avoid smoky venues. This debate, properly understood, is about public health and the public's interest in reducing exposure to second-hand smoke, reducing youth tobacco use, helping smokers quit and holding down the huge range of tobacco-related health costs -- costs that get factored into public health care budgets and overall health insurance premiums, and therefore are borne by smokers and nonsmokers alike.
It will be fascinating to watch the Minnesota-Wisconsin border war and the behavior of patrons who want a smoke with a drink. But tune in now because the experiment might be brief. Wisconsin is considering an indoor smoking ban of its own.