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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning


"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

The smoking ban...

A letter to the editor in today's TU takes issue with the recent report by the Department of Taxation that showed the smoking ban has not hurt business. The letter, sent by the Restuarant and Tavern Association, said this:
You dismissed our complaints about the data being flawed. But how else would you characterize a report on the effect of the smoking ban that left out businesses that closed after the ban? Leaving out the hundreds of businesses forced to close because of the ban clearly distorts the findings.

Even with this manipulation of the data, the report found that bar and tavern sales fell dramatically following the implementation of the ban and that they have not recovered since. Translating this into sales, the ban cost New York's bar and tavern owners more than $80 million in sales since the law went into effect.
Well then. It's probably true that overall bar business has decreased since the ban went into place. But let's think this through a little more:

1) a decrease in business, by itself, is no reason for the public to reverse its thinking on a policy. Lot's of things can decrease a bar's business - raising the drinking age, for instance. But that's the point - we're weighing greater concerns (health, stopping DWI) against the business impact. You can debate whether a smoking ban is worth the economic costs, but we shouldn't pretend the economics are the sole variable of interest.

2) Nevertheless, if the state is lying about the economic effects, we need to know that. If they really didn't consider businesses that were forced to close, that's wrong. They should also detail how many businesses asked for "hardship exemptions" to the bans. Again, we need to weigh the economic costs vs. the public benefits of the ban.

3) Personally, the ban has increased the amount of times per month that I go to a bar. It's so refreshing to not have to sit in all that smoke. Plus, your clothes dont reek the next day. And in reality, these have always been the issues for me, not the second-hand smoke stuff. Anyway, the ban has increased my economic contribution to the tavern and restaurant industry, and my contribution to new york in the form of liquor taxes. Or has it? Aren't we just talkin about...

4) A transfer of economic expenditure here? I doubt it's the case that the smoking ban has decreased overall alcohol consumption in the state. People who care that much about smoking most likely just purchase more liquor at package stores and consume it in their home. I bet the tax revenue is overall neutral. It would be interesting to see if there has been a spike in store liquor sales since the ban. This, of course, does not mean the restaurant business should be happy - they have reason to gripe when business is transferred away from them. But it does mean that the public isn't losing any revenue because of the ban, assuming consumption is just being shifted, not reduced. I've certainly shifted (as noted above) my consumption toward the bars. But I don't think my aggregate monthly spending on beer has changed. I'm just more likely to drink at a bar than in the past.

As I said before, I like the ban and I think it's worth the economic impact. Others can disagree. And look, I'm generally a libertarian about these things - my first instinct when the ban went into place was that it was a little bit big government repressive. I thought that people who don't like smoke could go to other bars that are less smokey. The market could solve the problem.

But as much as I'm a libertarian about this, I more so a (small-d) democrat. The ban is incredibly popular. People who smoke are only so burdened as they are at work - they smoke outside. And the bars really are better for the 75%+ of New Yorker's who don't smoke. I think reasonable people can disagree about the merits of the ban vis a vis the economic cost. But don't sit here and tell me that we can't do something the public wants simply because some businesses will lose revenue. We'd never be able to do anything in the public interest if that were the case.
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