NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 17, 2008

Banning smoking in public places is supposed to save lives.  In theory, it is supposed to encourage people to smoke less, so they do themselves and those around them less harm. Whether it works may depend on how uniform anti-smoking legislation is, says the Economist.

Although many countries have introduced national bans, America has taken a piecemeal approach.  A number of states, counties and municipalities have introduced various types of bans, and have enforced them with varying degrees of rigor.  The problem with this is that smoking bans seem to have been followed by an increase in drunk-driving and in fatal accidents involving alcohol, say Scott Adams and Chad Cotti, economists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Smokers are driving farther to places where smoking in bars is allowed, according Adams and Cotti.  The researchers analyzed data from 120 American counties, 20 of which had banned smoking:

  • They found a smoking ban increased fatal alcohol-related car accidents by 13 percent in a typical county containing 680,000 people.
  • This is the equivalent of 2.5 fatal accidents (equivalent to approximately six deaths). Furthermore, drunk-driving smokers have not changed their ways over time.
  • In areas where the ban has been in place for longer than 18 months, the increased accident rate is 19 percent.

Another explanation is that some smokers are "jurisdiction shopping" to places where they may puff.  Accident rates can be especially high where border-hopping to still-smoky bars is possible, says the Economist.

For example:

  • Accidents in Delaware County in Pennsylvania increased by 26 percent after the next-door state of Delaware introduced a smoking ban in 2002.
  • Similarly, when Boulder County banned smoking, fatal accidents in Jefferson County, between Boulder county and Denver, went up by 40 percent.

Source: "Unlucky Strikes," The Economist, April 11, 2008.

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