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Have Restaurant Smoking Bans Gone Too Far?

In “The Rediscovery of Tobacco,” writer Jacob Grier argues that it’s become too difficult to find a place to smoke

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A black and white photo of a man and a woman in old fashioned clothes at a restaurant. The man is lighting the woman’s cigarette.
The days of finding an ashtray on every restaurant table are long gone.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock
Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

Restaurants have changed in more than a few ways over the past 50 years. But the biggest shift, the one that has fundamentally changed what it’s like to eat in a restaurant or spend time in a bar, might be the switch to smoke-free dining rooms — These days, being asked to choose “smoking or non smoking” is something of a novelty. The transition to smoke-free bars and restaurants began with the rise of the anti-smoking movement in the 1960s as the dangers of cigarettes became clear and advocates argued on behalf of restaurant and bar employees, who had no choice as to whether or not they would be inhaling secondhand smoke. In 1975, Minnesota enacted the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, becoming the first state to limit smoking in most public spaces, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s state-enforced smoking restrictions ramped up, expanding to include bans on smoking indoors in most states and even parks and public plazas in some.

But although some of us may rejoice at the prospect of never again encountering unwanted second-hand smoke, Jacob Grier, a Portland, Oregon-based writer who covers smoking, vaping, and tobacco policy, believes smoking bans have gone too far.

Grier lays out his argument for more relaxed smoking regulations in his book, The Rediscovery of Tobacco: Smoking, Vaping, and the Creative Destruction of the Cigarette, published last fall. Eater spoke with Grier about why he believes the anti-smoking movement has overstepped its bounds and why there should be room for smoking in hospitality spaces. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eater: In the book, you argue that smoking bans have gone too far in eliminating tobacco from spaces, and that there should be some middle ground between banning smoking completely and allowing everyone to smoke everywhere. Ideally, what would that middle ground look like?

Jacob Grier: I’m personally very anti-cigarette, even though I support people’s right to make their own decisions about it. But I want to see the cigarette become extremely unpopular, and to basically fail in the market because nobody buys it anymore. I think e-cigarettes are one way to do that, and Snus [smokeless tobacco] from Scandinavia is another competitor. You have all these competing goods that may not give people the flavor of nicotine, but are not giving them the most dangerous form of nicotine that’s ever been invented.

It’s the same thing with smoking spaces: I don’t want to go back to the ’60s. I don’t wish that we were surrounded by cigarette smoke right now. But I do think we’ve gone too far in denying smokers any place to socialize, and so if you have spaces and businesses where you really are catering specifically to smokers and want to create a social space for those people, then the law should accommodate that.

How do you think the law should do that?

You wouldn’t necessarily have to say anybody can smoke in any space if they want to. We don’t do that with alcohol. To serve alcohol, you need a license and usually liquor is more restrictive than beer and wine. So if you’re worried about going back to the ’60s and people smoking everywhere, you could limit the number of licenses; you could have requirements, like if you want to allow smoking, you have to show that you’re selling tobacco, which is something you see in some states.

I think there’s lots of middle ground between just saying yeah, everybody do what you want, which I don’t think would go over well politically right now, versus restricting it in some ways but still making it possible to have that business.

Why exactly is it a problem that the law doesn’t allow for many spaces that allow smoking?

I think there’s a big class element at play where we often do carve out the space for say an upscale cigar bar, but we eject blue collar people who want to smoke cigarettes. And so part of it is just giving people who want to do this activity a legal place where they can do so, so they’re not being stigmatized and not being kicked out in the street and having to hang out in the alley. For me it’s about just basic respect for the dignity of people who choose to smoke. And even though I don’t like cigarettes, I do think something like cigars or pipes can be highly rewarding. They are lower risk, and you are less likely to be addicted to them, although that’s not to say that there’s no addiction or there’s no risk. But they are more amenable to occasional enjoyment.

And you compare interest in cigars to interest in coffee or alcohol.

Right. And if you look at harms to other people as opposed to the user, there’s a lot of fears about second-hand smoke, but the harms of drunk driving are even more undeniable, and you can avoid second-hand smoke by not going to a smoky bar. You can’t exactly choose to avoid drunk drivers unless you just stay in your house and never leave. So the externalities of alcohol are significant, and yet we allow it everywhere, essentially. We’re very tolerant of that. Even the drinkers impose costs on non-drinkers.

One of your arguments against widespread smoking bans is the idea that many of these bans were enacted based on studies that overstated the dangers of second-hand smoke. In your research, what was the most egregious example of this?

The Helena, Montana study, where they observed a decline in heart attacks in a small city, which was almost just due to chance, because it’s going to vary a lot when you have a small population. They then credited the entire 60 percent decline to the fact that there was a smoking ban for six months. The idea that just by getting smokers out of bars and restaurants, you could reduce the rate of heart attacks in the entire population by 60 percent was wildly implausible. And it was sent out in a press release without any qualifications about what the limitations of the study might be, and it was sent to the press before it was even published or peer reviewed — the final study didn’t even make such a big claim. But it was covered all around the world and immediately used to justify smoking bans.

Of course, as is documented in the book, there has been tons of research following up on that with much bigger populations, and the bigger the population, the smaller the effect gets, sometimes down to zero. So the effect might exist, but it’s clearly nowhere near as large as the headlines that they use to sell smoking bans… Initially [smoking bans were] about protecting workers and clearing out smoky rooms and then it just kind of expanded without any critical examination. The boundaries of where these bans apply kept expanding, and I think it became much more clearly motivated by getting smokers out of the space as opposed to just smoking.

How did those smoking bans affect the tobacco markets outside of cigarettes?

It certainly affected the cigar market, and the pipe market to a lesser extent. In a lot of areas, you can’t open a cigar bar or a cigar lounge. For example, I had a friend who had a tobacco shop in Portland, Oregon where she had an attached smoking lounge where she would also serve beer and wine. So she had four employees there. And then when the ban came in, she had to choose between serving the beer and wine or allowing people to smoke. Because she chose to allow people to smoke, she had to immediately lay off four employees, so you’re eliminating these spaces.

It’s harder to find a place to smoke. With a cigarette, you can step outside even if it’s terrible weather. Maybe if you have a cigar and you can take an hour or more to smoke I’m not going to walk outside in the winter in the rain and stand on the corner and do that. You need a hospitable space.

I think one good thing that’s happened is we shifted the norm faster than it would have happened without the bans. I think that norm is established now. So let’s say we eliminate the New York City smoking ban tomorrow, how many places would actually go back to allowing smokers? It’s hard to imagine now that many places would decide, you know what, we’d be better off with a lot of cigarette smoke in here. We successfully changed that norm. So I think having done that, we can now start to think about how we are tolerant toward smokers so we make sure they do have some spaces.