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Fritz L. Laux is a Professor of Economics at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The puzzling lack of economic impacts

One focus in the analysis of smoke-free air (SFA) laws has been on measuring the impact smoking bans have on the restaurant and hospitality industries. The overwhelming or “consensus” result of this research is that bans impose no adverse impact on industry revenues and employment levels (Scollo et al., 2003; Scollo and Lal, 2008; Hahn, 2010; CDC Fact Sheet, 2014).

What’s puzzling about this literature is that the “no-statistical-significance” result is presented as a neutral or, “this takes the issue off the table” result. I would suggest that the robustness of this finding should be presented as “shocking” and highly significant (if not “statistically significant”).

The economic model for the behavior of profit-maximizing firms would indicate that any restaurant or hospitality venue that could benefit from a smoking ban would already have implemented such a ban. Thus, the imposition of smoking bans should never help and should always hurt such industries. While our model predicts that bans can never help restaurants and can only hurt them, our finding shows that bans tend to have no impact, and may slightly help the average restaurant. This should be viewed, if not highlighted, as surprising.  

Clearly, we understand why the result might be presented with the “no adverse economic impact” headline. Restaurant and hospitality industry groups are important constituencies that can influence policy, and estimates of the business impacts of SFA laws can motivate or placate policy activists. If the laws have, on average, no adverse impact on the members of a local restaurant association, then that restaurant association should have no incentive to oppose SFA ordinances.

My suggestion, however, is that we should give more attention to the strangeness of this result and to the investigation of how this result can be occurring. Where is the market failure that prevented more restaurateurs from implementing SFA policies of their own accord, without need for SFA ordinances? Can efforts to bring more publicity to these market failures help restaurateurs and the public better to understand why SFA policies can make good policy?

Sources of market failure

The obvious (if not tautological) explanation for this weird result is that restaurateurs have somehow been consistently misestimating the business impact of SFA. There are several possible reasons for why this would happen and the most likely of these, it seems, is that social norms play a role in defining how restaurant employees and customers respond to a ban (Leibenstein, 1950). Before imposition of a ban, if the norm is to allow for smoking, then politeness dictates that we will expect restaurants to allow smoking. After a ban (and the resulting change in norms), just as nobody expects to smoke at a fitness club, smoking customers experience reduced desire or expectation of smoking in restaurants. Thus, if the ban changes the norm in ways that restaurateurs do not anticipate, we see empirical results such that industry impact is positive or zero instead of negative.

Borland (2006) with coauthors from the International Tobacco Control project provide evidence of just this kind of an effect. In a survey of current smokers, they found that for those U.S. smokers reporting that they lived in jurisdictions where restaurant smoking was not banned, only 17.5% supported bans on restaurant smoking. For smokers who reported total bans on restaurant smoking in their jurisdictions, 65.5% supported bans on restaurant smoking. Not surprisingly, it seems that expectations and preferences are affected by changes in norms.

With over three-fourths of the U.S. population now living in jurisdictions covered by 100% smoke-free restaurant laws, such shifts in norms within the U.S. are well underway. However, in communities where restaurant smoking is still commonly accepted, complaining to a restaurant manager about another customer’s smoking might seem a bit strange and confrontational. In these situations, patrons and employees may also not be as aware of the health consequences of secondhand smoke. After the publicity of a smoke-free air ordinance heightens awareness and after having experienced eating in a smoke-free restaurants, the value patrons place on smoke-free air may go up. Similarly, restaurant employee may acquire increased preferences for work in smoke-free establishments (Tang et al., 2004).

Although this argument seems less convincing (given the large percentages of restaurants that did go smoke-free well in advance of SFA law implementation), another possible explanation for how restaurateurs could have so consistently misestimated the business impact of smoke-free air policies is that they may have been influenced by incorrect or biased information. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, restaurant managers would have received lots of communication from various state and national industry associations arguing either that smoking restrictions would hurt business or that improved ventilation, rather than going smoke free, would be the correct industry response. As can be seen in online archives of tobacco industry documents, the Tobacco Institute was actively working with hospitality industry associations to promote such an “accommodation strategy” (via improved ventilation and smoking sections) for restaurants during these years when most smoke-free air legislation was passed (Dearlove et al., 2002). This industry-funded analysis, as intended, did likely have some influence the decisions made by restaurateurs.


From those who oppose SFA laws, the primary argument has been that, if bans do not hurt the restaurant and hospitality industries, why do they need to be imposed on these industries? Would not any restaurants and bars that could benefit from smoking bans have already implemented such bans of their own accords? My suggestion is that, in any advocacy for SFA, it may be appropriate to try to answer these objections more directly. Using research like the Borland et al. (2006) article, we can suggest why it is that restaurateurs, who would benefit from SFA implementation, don’t implement SFA policies of their own accords. Then, after having offered theoretical explanations, we can present our empirical analyses of the economic impact on the restaurant and hospitality industries with more credibility. The idea is that, just as good empirical work gives credence to theory, intuitive theoretical explanations give credence to empirical results.