- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

When, in the wilds of what became Virginia, the first English settlers met Pocahontas and other natives, they were welcomed with tobacco. Today they would have told to put it out.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine signed a restaurant smoking ban this week, following New York, California and other Democrat-dominated states. The law bars smoking in all restaurants (but not bars), unless the eatery has a separate room with a government-approved ventilation system.

We have a hard time seeing why this legislation was needed. Before the ban, more than eight of ten restaurants in Virginia were voluntarily non-smoking. Restaurateurs, whose investment is at stake on matters concerning their staffs and customers, seemed to be balancing the needs of smokers and non-smokers well.

Of course, there is always the health argument. Gov. Kaine claims that some 400,000 people die each year from smoking but, while smoking causes illnesses and deaths, this estimate isn’t a serious one.

When a smoker dies the death is usually attributed to tobacco, no matter what other risk factors he had. Two can play that game. Give us a list of every one who has ever been on a bicycle and later died a natural death, and we can talk the epidemic of death associated with the dangerous sport of bicycling. We are not closing our eyes to the dangers of smoking, which are considerable, but we are asking for a little bit of statistical honesty.

Consider a restaurant owner facing competitive pressures to decide whether to allow his customers to smoke. It is one of thousands of small economic decisions he must make ranging from what food to serve to the kind of décor to offer.

Restaurants can go out of business quickly when they don’t get small things right. Indeed, states with smoking bans have usually seen a 30 percent decline in restaurant sales in the first year of the ban. As the economy slides into recession, accelerating the decline in restaurant sales is not a good idea.

Nonsmokers may feel better off because of bans, but what they gain is less than what smokers lose. If the opposite were true, it wouldn’t be necessary to impose a ban.

Ultimately, the question is whether a free society allows adults to make their own choices. Should ice cream be banned? Surely it adds to obesity, causing some heart attacks. But some like the way ice cream tastes and are willing to take the risks. Equally, some might like the taste of fine Partagas or even a Marlboro.

As restaurant-related tax revenue drops, Gov. Kaine may regret limiting the ancient rights of Virginians.

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