Originally created 08/15/04

Health, not property

The most important aspect of a debate is how you frame it - a recognition of exactly what it is you're talking about.

Opponents of a smoking ban in Richmond and Columbia counties' restaurants and bars are trying to frame the issue as a private property dispute: Do restaurant and bar owners have the right to use their property as they see fit?

Well, even if that were the issue, the answer would be no. They don't.

There are, and always have been, restrictions on the use of property, especially commercial property - and particularly those properties that dispense items that are ingested by the public.

There are, to begin with, zoning restrictions. Then, to run a restaurant or bar, there are multiple licenses to qualify for. Your facility must be handicap-accessible. Dish-washing temperatures must reach 180 degrees, or 140 if bacteria-killing chemicals are being used. Dishes - even though they are your property - must be air-dried, not towel-dried. Food must be kept at certain temperatures, both in storage and in serving lines.

Your restaurant's grease traps are tightly monitored, as are your drains' "total suspended solids." There are sprinkler systems required, certain building materials required or prohibited, myriad building and health codes to conform to. There's the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) - an internationally recognized set of seven principles to prevent food-borne illnesses. You cannot, for instance, use knives on meat and vegetables interchangeably.

But that's your knife! That's un-American to tell a restaurant owner how he can use his knife, isn't it?

Of course not. It's called protecting public health.

That's the issue. Not property rights. If property rights trumped everything, including public health, then none of the restrictions, guidelines and laws governing the dispensing of foods and beverages would be in place - and we'd all get sick when we eat out and we'd stop eating out and restaurants would close by the dozens.

Of course, then owners would be freer to do what they like with their abandoned property, one supposes.

Don't be fooled by attempts to create a Boston Tea Party over this issue. Banning smoking in restaurants and bars is about public health. Restaurant and bar owners should be no freer to dispense carcinogens in the air than harmful substances in their food and drink.

Richmond and Columbia counties' boards of commissioners are expected to vote to approve their respective and similar smoking ban proposals Tuesday.

It's about time. We never would have waited this long to protect our stomachs. Why'd we wait this long to protect our lungs?


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