Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rhetoric in New Jersey Smoking Ban Celebration is Almost Too Much to Take

The New Jersey legislature enacted, and the governor signed, legislation Monday that bans smoking in virtually all workplaces in the state, including bars and restaurants, but which exempts the gaming floors of the state's casinos. This exemption is not a small one, as there are an estimated 48,000 casino workers in New Jersey.

In describing the legislature's action: "Assemblyman Bill Baroni, a Republican from Mercer County, said, 'This is the day New Jersey takes on and defeats Joe Camel,' a reference to the cartoon character that was formerly used in Camel cigarette ads. 'It's about time.'"

Acting Governor Richard J. Codey was apparently credited with making a last minute effort to deter an attempt to kill the smoking ban. He was also credited as the one who negotiated the casino exemption.

The Rest of the Story

Whatever Monday was, it was most certainly not the day that New Jersey took on and defeated Joe Camel.

First of all, it is not clear to me at all that the tobacco industry is continuing to play an active role in the opposition to workplace smoking laws. My impression is that the industry has discontinued or at least greatly suppressed its active efforts to fight this type of legislation. Certainly, it appears that Philip Morris, at very least, has toned down if not ended its lobbying against these measures.

So it is not at all clear to me that "Joe Camel" was really a player in the legislative debate.

In contrast, it seems that the dominant political player was not the tobacco industry, but instead, the casino lobby in New Jersey, which exerted a far greater and more direct influence on the legislative action than the tobacco industry (if the industry played a role at all).

In fact, the tobacco industry was not the dominant entity opposing the ban. The dominant player was indeed the casino industry, and the casino industry won.

It seems disingenuous of legislators to take credit for standing up to Big Tobacco when there was nothing to stand up to. Their chance to stand up to anyone was squandered when they cowered to the casino lobby and decided that while secondhand smoke is hazardous enough to warrant government intrusion to ban smoking in bars and restaurants and virtually every other workplace in the state, it was simply not hazardous enough to warrant banning smoking in casinos.

To me, that's irresponsible and inappropriate public policy. And it's cowardly.

Don't give me this nonsense about standing up to Joe Camel and Big Tobacco. What the New Jersey legislature did, plain and simple, was to cower down before the power of the casino lobby.

It makes no sense to me to create an unlevel playing field for businesses, by which bars have to ban smoking, but casinos don't. If anything, this means that there is almost certainly going to be a potential economic threat to bars in Atlantic City, because smokers may well decide to spend more time in the casinos, where they can smoke, than in the bars, where they can't. If I were a bar owner in Atlantic City, I would be stark-raving mad.

And the Governor is certainly no hero in this story. After all, he was the one who cowered down the most - forcing the issue by negotiating a compromise that exempted casinos, rather than standing his ground and demanding that all workplaces be included and that all workers be protected and that there be a level playing field for all workers and all businesses, if he really felt that secondhand smoke was a sufficient enough hazard to justify government intrusion into this matter.

I wouldn't mind it so much if policy makers (and anti-smoking groups) simply admitted that they cowered down to the casino lobby and enacted a law that is not justified on public health grounds, but simply on political grounds. Then I'd have more respect for the policy makers and for the anti-smoking groups. But to pretend that this is some sort of admirable and courageous effort to stand up to Big Tobacco (which I don't think even bothered showing up) is disingenuous and I have no respect for it.

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