Evaluating Smoking Bans

Dec 6, 2017
Originally published on December 7, 2017 2:41 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There was a time when you could smoke just about anywhere - in the old days. Well, not anymore. In much of this country, restaurants, bars and offices restrict smoking, of course, which is good for your health. But some economists have been asking if there is a downside. Our cohost Rachel Martin asked NPR's Shankar Vedantam what they found.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: How can these bans keeping people from smoking in places, presumably to help all of us - how would there be a downside to this?

VEDANTAM: Well, one potential downside, Rachel, is by limiting smoking in the workplace - the question is - do you drive smokers to light up elsewhere, especially at home where they can expose kids to higher levels of smoke and smoking-related diseases? The Economist Kerry Anne McGeary and Dhaval Dave saw anecdotal evidence of this kind of displacement. Here's McGeary.

KERRY ANNE MCGEARY: In areas where there were comprehensive smoking bans in place, we noticed we were always walking through a wall of smoke whenever we had to enter a building where there was a restriction. So we were wondering, really, what was the displacement that was going on because of these bans being put in place?

VEDANTAM: I should say, Rachel, that McGeary works at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the foundation is one of NPR's funders for its science and health coverage. The research we're talking about today, however, was done when McGeary was at Ball State University, and it was funded by the National Institute of Health, not Robert Wood Johnson.

MARTIN: OK. So how did they go about testing this theory - testing whether or not people who were displaced in the workplace were smoking more at home?

VEDANTAM: Well, they used data that tracked when smoking bans were enacted in different parts of the country starting in the 1990s and matched the location and timing of those bands with health information from different places. Specifically, they looked at the birth weight of newborns and the prevalence of asthma among young children. Cigarette smoking, Rachel, has been known to increase the likelihood of asthma and decrease birth weight. So it seems to be those are good markers for the effects of smoking in the household.

They found, to their relief, that the health outcomes of babies and children actually improved in places with comprehensive workplace smoking bans. So in other words, bans seem to be changing the culture around smoking and when and where smokers feel it's OK to light up.

MCGEARY: With the bans in place, they're not smoking at work. But they also may not be smoking in the presence of their children in their home. People are starting to change their values about whether or not they should be smoking in front of their children. And there seems to be some sort of a behavioral change that's going on.

MARTIN: So the whole point of these smoking bans in public spaces, in the workplace was to get people to smoke less, and it seems that that is happening.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So it's not just to get people to smoke less, but also to not expose your coworkers to secondhand cigarette smoke. But I think what this study was saying is - is it possible there was an unintended effect? You know, Rachel, they call economics the dismal science because economists are always finding the unintended consequences of various policies. And so the question here is, does preventing people from smoking in the workplace increase the risk elsewhere? They're finding that's not the case.

One important thing to keep in mind, Rachel, is that only about 60 percent of the country have these comprehensive smoking bans. I think a study like this is actually a good call for the remaining 40 percent of the country to think about enacting such bans.

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast and a radio show exploring the unseen patterns in human behavior. They're both called Hidden Brain. Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.

INSKEEP: Shankar was talking with our cohost, Rachel Martin.

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