Hood column: Breathing room on smoking rules
By John Hood
RALEIGH ó Some people smoke. Others don’t like the smell of smoke, are allergic to it, or believe that incidental encounters with second-hand smoke are a major health problem. The proper resolution of the conflict would respect freedom of choice and private property rights. If you come on my property to visit or do business, you must live by my rules. If someone else allows you to smoke on his property, I have to live by those rules if I choose to visit or do business there.
The rule should be, “Mind your own business” n properly understood.
Such a solution is not possible, however, when the property in question is not privately owned. Governments necessarily have to develop and enforce smoking policies on public property such as schools, courthouses, and county office buildings. Most already have. The North Carolina Senate just approved two new smoking restrictions that, if amended, would be reasonable accommodations of the legitimate interests of nonsmokers and smokers alike.
One bill would prohibit smoking outside state buildings if it occurs within 25 feet of an entrance, open window, or ventilation system. The other bill prohibits smoking in vehicles owned or leased by the state. Each passed the Senate overwhelmingly and is headed over to the NC House.
The intentions behind both bills are understandable. Someone who smokes just outside the door or open window may still be creating a nuisance for nonsmoking citizens, workers, or vendors seeking to make use of a public building. Similarly, because the smell can persist for a long time in a car that’s been heavily smoked in, it’s reasonable to argue that state-owned vehicles with multiple users are inappropriate places to allow tobacco consumption.
But it seems to me that the new smoking bans are overly broad to accomplish their legitimate ends. Although the 25-foot limit was reduced from an earlier 50-foot proposal, it’s still a relatively long distance from people entering and exiting a building. When emitted outside, tobacco smoke doesn’t exactly hug the ground and billow out like mustard gas. It would be extremely difficult to smell the smoke from someone lighting up around the corner from a door, even if it was 15 or 20 feet away. I think either the length limit ought to be tightened a bit more or different language inserted that more clearly specifies the intention of the bill to keep nonsmokers from encountering a true nuisance, rather than to help propel a creeping ban of tobacco use altogether.
More problematic is the outright prohibition of smoking in all state vehicles. What about cars and trucks that are assigned to particular employees, such as law-enforcement managers or state-agency heads? They can’t create a nuisance for themselves by smoking, nor are their vehicles routinely used to transport suspects, patients, or other individuals who may be nonsmokers and have no choice in the matter.
Lawmakers and activists may sincerely believe that no one should smoke, but a substantial minority of North Carolinians disagrees. They reserve the right to enjoy the consumption of a legal product. When they enter public property, they don’t retain the right to smoke whenever and wherever they please, but they shouldn’t have to shoulder an unreasonable burden, either.
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John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.