The unintended consequences of government are wonderful to behold. Impose a minimum wage and put poor, ill-educated teens out of work. Raise auto fuel-economy requirements, and kill more people in accidents as they travel in smaller cars. Ban cigarette smoking in local bars and restaurants, and cause more drunk driving accidents as smokers drive further to find more congenial locales.
The problem with this, say Scott Adams and Chad Cotti, economists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is that smoking bans seem to have been followed by an increase in drunk-driving and in fatal accidents involving alcohol. In research published in the Journal of Public Economics, the authors find evidence that smokers are driving farther to places where smoking in bars is allowed.
The researchers analysed data from 120 American counties, 20 of which had banned smoking. They found a smoking ban increased fatal alcohol-related car accidents by 13% 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%.
The findings, say the pair, are consistent with the suggestion that smokers are driving farther to alternative places to drink. This may be because they are driving to bars with outdoor seating, or to bars which are not enforcing the smoking ban.
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. Accidents in Delaware county in Pennsylvania increased by 26% 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%. How this weighs up against the long-term health effects of smoking bans is unclear. But it serves as a warning to well-meaning legislators.
Makes you wonder what government is going to do for an encore!