All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1995

The Big Apple: Cigarettes and Central Planners

The Restaurant Business Can Self-Regulate Regarding Smoking

Ralph Reiland, Associate Professor of Economics at Robert Morris College, owns Amel’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“People should be free to settle things on their own,” Jimmy Duke tells a New York Times reporter. Duke owns Drake’s Drum, a restaurant on Second Avenue at 90th Street in New York City.

What has Mr. Duke talking about individual freedom is Local Law 5, a new city ordinance that outlaws smoking in all restaurants with 35 or more seats, except at the bar (if they have one). Duke, a nonsmoker, has just tossed out over half of his dining room chairs in order to seat precisely 34 customers.

Duke may be auctioning off his final 34 chairs if the Coalition for a Smoke Free City gets its way. The Coalition is seeking to eliminate the size exemption and expand the smoke-free mandate to every eating and drinking establishment.

Duke’s restaurant, renamed, is now Drake’s Drum—The Smoke Inn. Illustrating the Law of Unintended Consequences, any health risks from secondhand smoke at Drake’s, with its now higher concentration of smokers, will most likely be increased because of Local Law 5. “Why should bureaucrats get involved?” Duke asks. “I run a pub. I don’t do behavior modification.”

For outdoor diners in New York City’s sidewalk cafes, Local Law 5 decrees that only 25 percent of the customers can be smoking at any one time. Pedestrians, walking by the cafe tables, can smoke in any percentages.

After the first month of operating under the smoking ban, a poll of 1,000 New York City restaurant owners shows 81 percent saying that Local Law 5 represents “overregulation of small business,” and 55 percent saying that their sales had declined.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity may be Jimmy Duke’s next headache. Allegedly, for folks with MCS, a whiff of secondhand perfume can bring on anything from a headache to cardiac arrest. If the hostess at Drake’s Drum seats too many heavily fragranced customers at one time, Duke may end up as a co-defendant in a manslaughter-by-environment lawsuit.

Emboldened by the enactment of Local Law 5, anti-smoking activist Nancy Coleman says, “We can now redirect our efforts to the area of toxins and fragrances.” The New York Post reports that perfume wearers already face restrictions in San Francisco. Charcoal grills may be next on Ms. Coleman’s list.

The Market at Its Best

In Manhattan’s NYNEX Yellow Pages, religious organizations fill only three-quarters of one page. The city’s restaurant listings, starting on the next page, go on for 28 pages of tiny print, beginning with Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant and ending with Zutto’s on Hudson.

There are nearly 300 restaurants listed on each of those 28 phone directory pages, with a total of more than 8,000 restaurants in New York City. It’s the free market at its best—a creative, competitive, and thriving industry, providing superb opportunities to entrepreneurs and an infinite array of choices to customers.

If there’s any industry that is fully capable of self-regulating itself regarding smoking, while meeting the needs of its varied clientele without new laws, surely it’s the New York City restaurant business. With over 8,000 restaurants, owned by people who know that they profit most through satisfying their customers, it seems clear that the market is thoroughly adept at adjusting to customers who prefer a smoke-free environment, if they request it, and equally capable of catering to others who wish to have a cigarette after dinner.

The Russian Tea Room, for instance, has two floors of dining rooms, each with well over 35 seats. Rather than entirely outlawing smoking on both floors, as Local Law 5 mandates, why not permit the owners of the restaurant to designate one floor as smoking and the other as non-smoking, if that’s what their patrons wish?

Other restaurant owners could fully ban smoking, but that would be purely a decision by the owners, not a city-wide regulation. In the end, the result might be 3,000 smoke-free restaurants, 2,500 restaurants that don’t regulate smoking, and 2,500 that had separate accommodations for smokers and non-smokers, all dictated primarily by the market.

That would hardly be a dilemma when tourists stopped at the hotel concierge to ask for a good Chinese restaurant. “Let’s see, we have 106 good ones that are smoke-free and 92 where you’re permitted to smoke. The best dozen or so are marked with a star.”