In November 2006, the French government enacted a decree banning smoking in public places which became effective as from last February 1. French cafés, bars and tobacconists, where smoking is generally the rule, have though till January 1, 2008, to comply. Instead of the ban, the government should leave the choice to their owners to decide if their establishment should be smoke free or not for the benefit of their consumers.
There are several drawbacks related to an overall, government-backed, ban on smoking.
First, even if it is fashionable in many countries, a smoking ban turns out to be quite largely pointless for those establishments which really wish to declare themselves smoke-free. It should be recalled that places such as restaurants, bars, cafés, and nightclubs, remain private places and that it is in the interest of their owners to ban smoking voluntarily when smoke is indeed a nuisance for their clientele.
A demand for smoke-free establishments unquestionably creates profit opportunities which entrepreneurs are ready to grasp. Thus, before the ban, consumers already had the choice among establishments for non-smokers, smokers, or both, to the extent that it was allowed by law. Owners are in a position to offer the ambient air that best suits their clientele, just like they offer menus and ambient music that meet their preferences in the best possible way.
In contrast to a ban imposed by public authorities, the entrepreneurial freedom enjoyed by owners allows them in fine to reconcile the preferences of all consumers – whether they are smokers or not – in the most efficient way. And, non-smokers are able to avoid the alleged risks linked to passive smoking, if they really wish, simply by not frequenting establishments for smokers only.
But, the ban is also prejudicial from an economic standpoint, especially for those establishments known for being frequented by smokers. Even if it has often been asserted that the ban on smoking would not generate economic costs, things are probably more complex and these establishments face the risk of registering a slowdown in their activity.
In some countries, this slowdown has been sizeable. For example, according to a study conducted in several towns in Canada, sales in bars and pubs were 22.5% lower than what they would have been in the absence of a ban on smoking. One must therefore not rule out that in a country like France – where the proportion of smokers is higher than in Canada and where it is commonplace to smoke in cafés –the consequences could be much more significant.
But, most importantly, figures do not fully reflect all economic costs. One must also take into account the dissatisfaction – impossible to quantify, even though it is real – of smokers. On this issue, even an anti-tobacco economist such as Kenneth Warner concedes that "tobacco consumption produces utility for some members of society, and this utility warrants recognition (and perhaps some respect) in planning optimal tobacco control policy."
Ultimately, instead of enacting a decree that imposes a general ban on smoking in France, the French government should have left the choice of banning smoking or not to the owners of establishments, as is partially for example the case in Spain.
The author is a non-smoker.
Valentin Petkantchin, director of research, Institut économique Molinari