Marc Ambinder offers this general meditation on the changing politics of smoking.
That process has accelerated dramatically since 2004 when New York City essentially banned smoking in bars and restaurants. It seemed so wild at the time. Chris Hitchens wrote a hysterical Vanity Fair piece on his attempts to defy the ban. It seemed radical, the odd teetotaling of a mayor who also pursued trans fats with a vengeance. Now, of course, smoking bans are everywhere and while the libertarian in me finds them irksome, the fact is that the public has not revolted and tossed out politicians who impose them. Trans fats are under siege, too.
Consider it part of the beauty of federalism. The small ideas that incubate in laboratories of democracy, as the former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called the states, have grown wildly. Causality is the hardest thing to trace. But I suspect without the heavy-duty smoking bans begun in earnest after 2004 in Mike Bloomberg’s New York, you wouldn’t have seen the conditions change so dramatically that the passage of FDA regulation of tobacco is a relatively minor story.
For me, the interesting question is not so much the spread of the ban across jurisdictions as its nearly universal success in implementation. When Ireland banned smoking in enclosed spaces in 2004, I would have been prepared to bet large amounts of money that the ban would be universally ignored (Irish citizens have historically had a flexible attitude to the interpretation of legal rules that don’t suit them). In particular, I would have predicted that the ban would never work in pubs. But it did – pretty well instantaneously as best as I could tell. If it hadn’t been for the Irish example, I would have bet even larger amounts that the ban would never have taken off in Italy (where storeowners are legally obliged to give you a receipt when you buy something, to make it more difficult for them to fiddle taxes, and where the general attitude to large swathes of civil and criminal law seems best characterized as a kind of amiable contempt). But again, it appears to have worked.
I haven’t seen any research on this (if someone knows of any, let me know in comments), but my best guess in the absence of good evidence would be that the success of the ban reflected instabilities in previously existing informal norms about where people could or could not smoke. Laws that work against prevailing social norms face an uphill battle in implementation – unless people come to a general belief that non-compliers are highly likely to be sanctioned by the public authorities, they are likely to carry on doing what they always do. Hence, for example, the continued failure of the RIAA etc to stop file-sharing – file-sharers who both (a) think that there is nothing wrong with swapping music and movies, and (b) that the chance that they are going to be punished is low, are going to go on sharing files (current US law tries to counterbalance this problem by applying relatively draconian penalties to the few file sharers who are caught, but this strategy carries its own problems). Laws that broadly fit with prevailing informal norms, will, obviously, have few implementation problems.
But what we may have seen (if my guess is right) with smoking bans is an unusual case in which prevailing norms (that Irish people can smoke in pubs to their hearts’ content, and that others will just have to put up with it) were much more fragile than they appeared to be, and that the change in law made it easier for those disadvantaged by the prevailing norms to challenge smokers and to shame them into stopping smoking in certain places, hence creating a new set of robust norms. I’ve no evidence beyond anecdote and personal observations to support this claim – but I do think that it is hard to imagine that norm fragility isn’t involved somewhere along the causal chain, given that state enforcement capacities are obviously insufficient to push something like this through.