The Law and Economics of Smoking Bans

smoking.jpgThe big news out of Philly recently is Mayor Street’s decision to begin enforcing the City’s smoking ban. But, as commentators have observed, the City isn’t putting real resources into enforcement: only two officers will be assigned to the smoking beat, and will not work after business hours. That’s City time, not Bar time. Given the miniscule probability of being caught, the $25 fine seems ludicrously low.

Nevertheless, the City is confident that the ban will have bite. Although anecdotes from Kentucky suggest otherwise, the City argues that:

“The majority of the people will comply,” [interim Health Commissioner Carmen Paris] said. “The majority of the people will put that cigarette away. Those that don’t, then the establishment owner is required to call us and file the complaint.”

Self-policing by bar owners and smokers themselves should be effective, said Joe Minott, the executive director of the Clean Air Council.

“People do it because it’s required by law,” he said. “I suspect that after a settling-in period there’s not going to be a lot of problems.”

The law and economics of the enforcement of regulatory offenses interests me. Traditional analysis would suggest that self-enforcement is unlikely (or discounts the role of social pressure). But I suspect that Philly is onto something. Because of the long, public, debate about the utility of smoking bans, most citizens know about the issue, and probably feel invested in the compromise that finally emerged from the City Council. Unlike, say, a normal low-enforcement regulation (e.g., an EPA rule, or the rule against home poker games), the smoking ban will be pushed along by significant social norms of compliance. Dirty looks, over-loud coughs, muttered comments, and (ultimately) illegal self-help will clear the air.

Theorists of deterrence might consider whether the success of low-enforcement/high-compliance rules provides a model to rescue low compliance rules where social-enforcement is possible (like anti-drug and anti-graffiti criminal codes, and plagarism in school). Maybe we need to sunset the existing criminal code every ten years, and force legislators to re-authorize the law through public debate. That debate, in turn, will increase public buy-in and lower deterrence costs. This analysis (not incidentally) explains the need to publish federal regulations, but also suggests that mere publication isn’t enough: real, political, debate is necessary to ensure that social sanctions help legal rules penetrate and affect their intended audiences.

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1 Response

  1. Its value is deontological says:

    The reason the ban works is it gives “the force of law” to people who complain about other people’s smoking. Even if you’re not fined, the nag who pesters the bartender to kick you out has the force of law on his side. All the law is doing is adding marginal value to a weak moral argument.