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Cigarettes, Civil Liberties and South Carolina

May 13, 2010

Cigarettes, Civil Liberties and South Carolina’s Bottom Line…  Originally published 12/21/2006

By Jeffrey Sewell

Two and a quarter centuries ago on Sullivan’s Island, a small band of American Patriots hunkered down in a crude fort against a ferocious British naval bombardment. Saved from the impact of hundreds of screaming shells by the spongy absorbency of our now-legendary Palmetto trees, Col. William Moultrie’s resilient Colonials eventually repulsed the British fleet and scored one of the first decisive victories of the American Revolution.

History, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony.

Sullivan’s Island is once again a key battleground in the fight for American liberty – only this time, the threat comes from within.

In May of this year, Sullivan’s Island became the first municipality in South Carolina to pass an all-inclusive indoor smoking ban, unleashing a politically-correct, anti-smoking jihad that has cities and counties all across our state lining up to follow suit.

With a statewide smoking ban likely to be introduced in the House of Representatives again this year, it’s becoming all too clear that the anti-smoking zealots won’t stop until cigarettes are completely illegal – anytime, anyplace and for anyone.

But while demonizing a convenient enemy at the expense of individual liberties and market freedoms may be politically expedient, it is decidedly un-American, not to mention detrimental to our state’s bottom line.

According to the Orwellian-sounding “Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System” of the Centers for Disease Control, smokers represent 26% of South Carolina’s population[1], and according to the State Department of Revenue, they annually pay $171 million in taxes and fees on top of the taxes and fees everyone else pays[2].

Granted, as the dangers of second-hand smoke have become more widely-known, this added contribution to the public treasury is justified. Also, few would argue the fact that society has inherited an obligation to protect the individual liberties of those who choose not to smoke. Public buildings, for example, clearly fall into this category, as no one should be forced to breathe in second-hand smoke simply because government required them to appear at jury duty or stand in line at the DMV.

But outlawing smoking in privately-owned restaurants – and especially in privately-owned bars – fails to strike a fair balance in this question of competing liberties.

Other than private residences, privately-owned bars are generally acknowledged as the last refuges in our society for smokers. In most cases, bars cater specifically to smokers and derive a majority of their taxable income from smokers’ patronage.

That’s why a ban on smoking in privately-owned bars represents a clear line of demarcation – a tipping point where one side’s attempt to protect liberty begins to infringe on the liberties of thousands of patrons who do smoke, to say nothing of bar owners who are trying to make a decent living for themselves and their families by fulfilling a legitimate marketplace need.

What do we honestly expect will happen to these businesses?

Take California for example, where anti-smoking advocates like to trumpet the fact that tax receipts from bars and restaurants increased by 4% after that state’s smoking ban went into effect. What they neglect to point out, however, is that retail sales in California increased by 8% over the same time period – meaning that the bar and restaurant industry grew at half the rate of the rest of the economy. [3]

Even more telling is the chilling effect the ban has had on the creation of new businesses in California. According to the California State Board of Equalization, permits for restaurants and bars have decreased by 3.3% since the ban took effect (compared to a 12.7% increase in fast food permits). [4]

But while the adverse economic impact of broad smoking bans cannot be dismissed (particularly in a state like South Carolina that relies on small businesses to create jobs and revenue), it is our society’s seemingly inexorable drift away from its founding principles that is most worrisome.

“The true danger comes when liberty is nibbled away for expedients, and by parts,” Edmund Burke once wrote.

As our State Legislature and court system seek to reestablish a fair balance of liberties in this ongoing debate, both institutions would be wise to heed this warning.

Mr. Sewell is the principal consultant of Sewell Consultancy, a political consulting firm in Lexington County. He is also co-owner of www.SChotline.us formerly SCHotline.com.

A special thank you to Mr. Will Folks for his work on this opinion piece.


[1] Centers for Disease Control’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2001

[2] PriceWaterhouseCooper, Orzechowski & Walker (Arlington, VA) from S.C. Department of Revenue data, retrieved on December 14, 2006 from http://www.smokersclubinc.com/modules.php?name=Encyclopedia&op=content&tid=97

[3] California Board of Equalization, retrieved on December 14, 2006 from http://www.forces.org/evidence/files/ban-csr.htm

[4] Ibid.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 10:21 AM

    Some of my best writing… thanks Will!

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