For the majority of my four years at university, I shared a house with multiple housemates, all of who smoked. While we always tried to enforce rules on ourselves to limit smoking to outside, as we all agreed that the smell of smoke lingering in the common areas wasn’t exactly pleasant, we hardly ever managed to last more than a month before laziness took over and we were smoking indoors again. And in the middle of the rainy and freezing English winter we always gave up entirely and just had to get used to the constant smell of smoke in the living room. If one of us had been a non-smoker, we would’ve likely been better at enforcing our own rules, but since we were all equally lazy this unfortunately didn’t happen.
Provided our tenancy agreement allowed us to do so, would you consider it acceptable for the government to force us to stop smoking indoors, and threaten us with heavy fines if we were ever caught? I’m fairly sure that you would all agree that the idea is preposterous. It’s our house, we’re willing to accept the consequences of our actions, and it’s harming no one besides our own stupid selves.
When we invited people over, we always made sure they knew what to expect, and generally continued to smoke inside. Some people weren’t smokers, and it’s likely they didn’t exactly enjoy all the smoke – but no one ever asked us to stop. They knew that it was our house, and no one was forcing them to be there – if it bothered them too much they could always just leave (although no one ever did, because they wouldn’t have come over in the first place).
In this case, do you believe the government should force us to stop this practice? True, it’s not exactly a demonstration of the best hospitality. But it is our house, and people were always made aware of this either before arriving or immediately upon entering (the cloud of smoke escaping from the front door usually did the job for us). Since there was no reason anyone had to come over and visit us, why should we be forced to change our behaviour for them, and be fined heavily (and eventually incarcerated if we didn’t pay the fines) if we refused to comply?
Once again, I’m sure (or I hope) that the majority of people reading this will agree with me that while our standards of hospitality are perhaps not ideal, the government would have no business forcing us to stop. That’s because we all inherently understand the value of our own property, and as unpleasant as behaviour may be – we should be allowed to do what we want on our own property provided we’re not coercing anybody. The harm caused by the possible second hand smoke in this case obviously doesn’t count, since all of our guests were there of their own free will and could leave whenever they chose.
As sensible as this all sounds, most people would vehemently disagree with the implications. Because a restaurant is someone’s own property as well – and just like someone’s home we are only there by invitation. Sure, the invitation is somewhat more implicit (an ‘open’ sign on the door as opposed to a Facebook message), but the fact is that the restaurant is someone’s property. It is, in essence, someone’s house – but instead of having one dining room table, it has several, and instead of inviting friends over every now and then, most strangers are welcome six days out of seven. But the fact remains: it is someone’s property, and all the people that eat there are choosing to be there out of their own free will. If they were to arrive and notice people smoking inside, and found this to be intolerable, they could easily just walk over to the next restaurant.
So why do we force restaurants and bars to ban smoking on their premises? I completely agree that it’s extremely unpleasant to sit at a restaurant and have people smoking around you (I am no longer a smoker). But just like I wouldn’t try to force my friend to change his habits when I’m invited over to his house, why should I suddenly expect a restaurant owner to change his when I’m inviting myself over to his house? I think the confusion stems from the fact that most people feel entitled to restaurant services, not understanding that the restaurant owners are the ones doing us a favour, not the other way around. Just because we enjoy eating out doesn’t give us some kind of special claim over their property.
This is especially true because we’re not talking about life and death here. If for some reason a person was about to die and could only be saved by eating in a completely smoke-free restaurant, and there was only one restaurant close enough to save his life, I would understand the argument for forcing the restaurant owner to ban smoking. But eating out is an activity based purely on pleasure – it has neither a physical need nor a psychological one. It’s simply fun. So why does our fun preside over someone’s property when that piece of property is a restaurant, but not when it’s a home? The question becomes particularly absurd when you consider that there are dozens (if not hundreds) of potential substitutes for this sort of pleasure.
Try this as a quick thought experiment. You’re in your own home, and you always enjoy a few cigarettes with dinner. You invite some friends over, some smoke and some don’t; yet you still enjoy a few cigarettes. No problems there, and no one believes smoking in this situation should be illegal. Now a friends suggests that since your cooking is so good, and your meals always so cheap, you should start inviting homeless people over on certain days of the week for a free meal. Now that some of the people coming over to eat at your house are strangers, does that suddenly mean you should be forced to stop smoking? If it does, then what is your explanation as to why an act of charity suddenly forces you to change another aspect of your behaviour that is completely unrelated? If you don’t think this would be sufficient to make it permissible to force you to desist smoking, how about if all of a sudden your popularity spread so much that people started begging you to let them eat at your house, in exchange for payment if necessary. If you allow these people to eat at your house would that suddenly make it right for a government to step in and force you to ban smoking?
No, obviously not. Because it’s your own house, and your own kitchen, and those people are only there because they want to – not because they have to. The simple fact of the matter is that there is logically almost no difference between your kitchen and your dining room to a restaurant owner’s kitchen and floor.
As much as I would hate having restaurants filled with smoke, I don’t think it would cause me much of an inconvenience if the ban were lifted. That’s because there are millions of non-smokers, and they are increasing every year. So the majority of restaurants would most likely maintain their ban on smoking, knowing that these days it would make their restaurants look highly unattractive. Many pubs would be very happy to lift the ban, and in fact it makes sense for them to allow smoking – because usually people who are drunk don’t really care about some extra smoke blowing around their faces. And besides, smoke in a pub adds to the atmosphere. The point is that the types of restaurants that are mostly patronized by smokers would allow people to smoke in them, and those currently catering to mostly non-smokers would voluntarily maintain the ban.
Win-win. The only loss is that some people can no longer enjoy certain restaurants smoke-free – but in those cases it means that the majority of that restaurant’s customer base enjoys being allowed to smoke while eating: so why shouldn’t they be allowed to? Just because smoking is proven to be terrible for your health doesn’t mean that millions of people don’t continue to derive enjoyment from it (knowing full well the negative side effects), and there’s no reason to assume that their subjective preferences are inherently inferior.
Besides, making it illegal for restaurants to permit smoking on their premises means that if a manager were to allow it, he would be fined. If he continued to allow it, he would eventually be violently thrown in jail. Is this really the kind of society we want to live in? One in which people are made to rot in jail cells (at the expense of the rest of society) for simply allowing people to smoke both in their homes and in their restaurants?