Which Is Worse: Fewer Pubs or More Unhealthy Citizens?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPatrons at Cecil’s Jazz Club in West Orange, N.J., savored one of the last nights for smoking in bars and restaurants. (Photo: Marko Georgiev/The New York Times)

A journalist writing for the Financial Times complains that Britain’s indoor smoking ban has resulted in more pubs closing and a decline in beer sales of 10 percent.

I believe that smoking and beer drinking are complements for the average consumer, so he is no doubt correct that the decline in demand for beer has shifted the industry demand curve leftward and forced some pubs out of business. He views the whole effort as disastrous and notes that the absence of pubs, a focus of social life in small towns, will impose a negative externality through reduced feelings of community.

Perhaps, but he ignores the whole point of the laws: to remove the potentially severe negative externality produced by second-hand smoke. The net effect of such laws on economic welfare just isn’t clear, but it is poor analysis to ignore the main effect that has led countries to enact them.

Justin James

Let's not forget another financial benefit of driving people out of bars... drinking at bars and restaurants is many, many, MANY times more expensive than drinking store-bought alcohol. A liter of mid-range hard liquor typically costs what 4 - 8 "drinks" at a bar (2 oz. shots, whether straight or mixed) would cost. Additionally, as more people move from drinking out to drinking at home, it is quite possible that they may drink more, due to not having to drive home. That, however, is conjecture and debatable.



It's not clear to me why the free market isn't the best arbiter in this debate.

Let people drink in pubs. Let pubs choose whether or not they want to be smoke free.

If enough people are bothered by the smoke or second hand smoke, they'll choose the smoke free pubs. Then, the smoking pubs will either choose to ban smoking or risk going out of business.

If the smoke free pubs lose business to the smoking pubs, they can choose to allow smoking or go out of business.

I'm not a smoker and never have been. I really don't like people smoking near me. But I prefer to choose freely whether or not I frequent places that allow smoking, rather than have the government impose a ban.

Paul Clapham

Where I live, pubs were forced to be smoke-free because of the health risks to the staff, not because of the health risks to the customers. So that makes the tired old "free market" argument moot and we don't have to rehash it all over again.

I'm willing to bet that it was the workers' compensation issues that caused smoking to be banned in British pubs too, but I don't know that for a fact.


Not to get all moral majority on everyone, but if our sense of community is based on being drunk while smoking a cigarette, does that mean we can't tolerate each other when sober?


I think it's okay for the government to step in. Paul, you forget that it's not just the people who choose to go into the pubs that have to deal with the consequences of second-hand smoke. It causes health problems that influence the whole community -- the employees of the pub (bartenders, waitstaff, janitors) who can't find work elsewhere, the family that lives in the apartment above the pub, the family members of the people who choose to go into the pub (because they may lose a family member to cancer), all of the tax payers who subsidize the health care of the pub-goers who now have respiratory problems or cancer...etc., etc.


Secondhand smoke is a negative externality? Are you sure about that? Reducing smoking actually increases long-term health care costs:


So eliminating smoking constrains personal liberty *and* costs society more. As for the 'innocent bystanders' inhaling smoke that they don't want: if someone really values their life that much, no one is forcing them to hang around in smoke-filled pubs; obviously they value 'going out' more than the risk of contracting lung cancer.

I'm speaking, by the way, as a Californian who personally hates secondhand smoke and loves the smoking bans here. But that doesn't mean that I don't think the bans are specious.


why cant adults consent to health risks of smoking? why can't adults consent to second hand smoke exposure in their work environment. maybe they will demand higher wages?

i understand that society bears the health costs of smokers and those exposed to second hand smoke, especially in countries with government provided/subsidized health care. But where does this all end.

Should we have rules on what people can eat or what activities they can engage in? no rock climbing, no high heels, no big macs.

People should be free to choose how to live their life and society can account for the costs through taxation.

Chris Routlede

The decline in pub-based beer sales is much more complex than the smoking ban alone. Beer sales overall are doing fine and some breweries (Moorhouses from Burnley for instance) are actually expanding; it is pubs that are suffering. Other issues are the looming recession, the high price of beer in pubs compared with supermarkets, and excessive, punitive taxation on beer (the latest tax rise from a month or two ago doesn't apply to Whisky or other hard liquor).



Re: Paul (#2): "Let pubs choose whether or not they want to be smoke free.":

This was a common position -- and one that I sympathize with myself, libertarian that I am -- prior to my state (CT) prohibiting smoking in bars. Quite some time ago (late 70s or early 80s maybe?) CT had mandated that restaurants (not bars) have non-smoking sections; the assumption was that bars were for smokers, and that if any bars wanted to switch to non-smoking, they would.

But none ever did. And the reason? Because if one did, it would lose all its customers (the majority of which, it was assumed, were smokers) who would flee to other, smoking-permitted bars. No bar wanted to be the first to prohibit smoking, since doing so would have been a losing proposition. At least, this is what everyone in the business assumed ... so no one tried it.

Eventually the anti-smoking lobby -- coupled with the longstanding compulsion of CT government to be a "nanny state" -- prohibited smoking in bars just a few years ago. Some went out of business. However, this opened up bars to non-smokers like myself, who had avoided them previously. I now patronize bars maybe a couple times a month, which I had not done before.

While the majority of bars' previous patrons had been smokers, the market of smokers is a limited one (20% of the population or thereabouts). Opening up bars to non-smokers would expand a bar's potential market significantly. So while 20% of the population would not go in any more, after the smoking prohibition, now 80% might.

Theoretically, therefore -- and contradicting the usual presumptions -- this c. fourfold expansion of market prohibiting smoking ought to be good for a bar. That some bars have closed in CT, after the prohibition, makes me question this ... but even so, if bars have gained my business since the prohibition, they must have gained the business of others too.

An open question to Prof Hamermesch or anyone else: Has any economic analysis been done to determine whether or not an offset of this sort exists, and if so, how large it is? I've come across duelling claims, of course; Web searches on the topic usually bring up only biased information, either from pro-smoking or anti-smoking advocates. Neither source can be trusted.


lola granola

There are also studies showing an increase in drunk driving when smoking bans are enacted.


Apparently, people are willing to drive further, out of the smoking ban area, in order to enjoy a cigarette with their dinner and drinks. They return home, driving further after drinking.

I would say there are a lot of negatives associated with an increase in drunk driving.

Given that our government is incapable of carefully considering the full impact of the laws that it passes; (and, indeed, it may not be possible to foresee every unintended result) the government should refrain as much as possible from passing arbitrary laws restricting personal behavior.


I'm really surprised that this law is hurting the pubs, on account of smoking bans in my state, Minnesota, and numerous other places around the US, has resulted in a massive increase in business for the bars. Maybe there's a higher percentage of smoking in Europe (I suspect this is true), but even there, it seems to me like it would have to be a very large difference in order to create the opposite effect that such laws have had on the United States.


#10 "There are also studies showing an increase in drunk driving when smoking bans are enacted. "

I wonder if there is really an increase in drunk driving or that that drunk drivers have to drive further to get home.

I am guessing that the longer a drunk driver is on the road the greater the chance of them getting in (or causing) a fatal crash.


...just as it was bad analysis to pursue the ban whilst ignoring such secondary effects. But such is the anti-smoking zealotry.

By the way, I'm a non-smoker, never have. I just hate the demonizing of one bad habit in society, such that resources are put against it in excess of their diminishing returns whilst others (eg drinking alcohol, unhealthy foods) go under-addressed.


I think the author of the article as well as the others who feel that smoking bans are outright failures are thinking too much in the short term. I prefer to frame the issue by comparing it to changing waste management practices in the 1800's due to health concerns. I haven't researched this, but I would imagine that some city-living people then were frustrated with having to deal with the inconveniences that came with having to think about how they handled their waste instead of just being able to dump it in the streets and forget about it. And the idea of living at that time and having to walk down those filthy streets on a regular basis disgusts me, as I'm sure it does for most Americans and Europeans.

I like to believe that getting rid of indoor smoking is similar to that. There may be short term pains now, but in the long term many more people will have a hard time imagining things being any other way since the thought of sitting in a smoke filled room would be just as disgusting. I believe that will be better for everyone's health, and I prioritize that over any cost analysis, any day.


Bobby G

I'd say more unhealthy citizens is much worse from a utilitarian standpoint, considering that fewer pubs also has the added positive externality of fewer people drinking alcohol, a "poison," in addition to the above mentioned negative externality of second-hand smoke. Less alcohol consumption and less smoking and less second-hand smoking vs. a likely minority of citizens getting mildly annoyed? I'm surprised universal health care advocates didn't jump on this earlier.


Since we are all going to die eventually, and everything we like (driving, drinking, smoking, eating, sex, etc.) imposes some external cost on society, why not simply ban people and solve the whole problem once and for all.


A relevant comparison, I hope:
In my state there's been, for some time, great disagreement over whether motorcyclists should be required by law to wear helmets. I say, let them ride helmetless and free as long as, in case of accident 1/ I, directly or indirectly, pay none of the rider's insurance costs and 2/ I face no liability if I'm first at the scene of the accident and I choose to say "Too bad, sucker!" and leave the scene without providing aid or calling 911.
I want individuals who want to express their individual freedoms to "own" those freedoms and all their consequences--simple as that.


Re: PsiCop, #9

You wrote:

"Theoretically, therefore — and contradicting the usual presumptions — this c. fourfold expansion of market prohibiting smoking ought to be good for a bar. That some bars have closed in CT, after the prohibition, makes me question this … but even so, if bars have gained my business since the prohibition, they must have gained the business of others too.:

The article we are discussing says that bars are closing in Britain as a result of the smoking ban. I think I understand that you're saying that the ban in your state increased potential bar patrons 80%. Still, pubs are closing in Britain so the same increase in potential customers isn't in effect there.


I think it's a fallacy that non-smokers won't frequent bars where there is smoking. I don't smoke, but I do frequent one bar in my neighborhood where people smoke. (In California, you can't smoke in bars. However, I drink at the Moose Lodge, which is a private club, and some of the members smoke. I think some members join because there is smoking there.)

I get the arguments for the ban. I do sort of question the idea that people who work in bars have no other choices and therefore must be protected. Is cocktail waitress such a specialized profession that one can't transfer said skills to restaurant waitress if the smoke is bothersome?

Also, I don't like the "we all pay for the health costs of smokers when they get sick" argument. Because if that's the case, we'll next be banning fast food and other unhealthy foodstuffs because we all pay for the health care costs when the obese suffer weight-related diseases. For what it's worth, I'd rather smoke a cigarette than eat a Big Mac, but I don't want to ban McDonald's.


Adrian Moore

I find your comment about the externality of second hand smoke odd. The pubs are not commons. If indeed they are smokey places, that is an aspect of them people take into account in choosing to frequent them. The fact that the ban caused many pubs to close is in fact proof that the smoke was not an externality, but was a cost people chose to bear in order to consume pubs. Without smoking, too many choose not to consume it, and at the margin some pubs go under. No externality story here, just one of absurd regulation.

Conor - Ireland

I hope a personal anecdote won't offend anyone;

As a teenager, I bartended in Ireland prior to the introduction of its smoking ban, and slowly my resolve against smoking weakened, I even tried a few (maybe 10? certainly no more) cigarettes around the age of 19 or 20, just before the ban came into effect. I then found that after the smoking ban was in place I suffered headaches, hunger pangs, and irritability at work as a result of missing my second hand smoke fix!!! So thank god for smoking bans is all I can say, as I may have become a regular smoker without the ban in place.

There's no way any type of analysis could have accounted for that benefit but might have added 10 years to my life.