A Lesson In Unintended Consequences

Normally, we libertarians know enough about government to predict many unintended consequences of government regulation… But this one took me by surprise:

Although many countries have introduced national bans, America has taken a piecemeal approach. A number of states, counties and municipalities have introduced various types of bans, and have enforced them with varying degrees of rigour.

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%.

Good thing we saved everyone from that secondhand smoke!

Now, I’m not going to defend the drunk drivers who are causing these accidents. The drunk drivers are the primary cause of these accidents; the smoking bans are only a contributing factor. But it’s a good lesson about how well-meaning regulations can quite often have disastrous unintended consequences. When politicians tell you about all the beneficial (and largely falsely-promised) effects of a proposed regulation, perhaps the negative effects– that which is unseen— should be anticipated as well.

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  • Calvin

    “… many countries have introduced national bans, America has taken a piecemeal approach …”

    Would the drunk driving fatality rate drop were smoking to be banned nationwide? The excuse that they have to drive farther would be moot … What are the drunk driving accident rates in countries with national bans on smoking?

  • Peter

    Let’s not forget the people who get sick from constant exposure to second-hand smoke.


  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    In this case, it’s tough to compare to other countries, based on prevalence of public transit, etc. Nor did I intend this post to either pro or con on smoking bans, per se (for the record, I am anti-ban). It’s an example of how “good intentions” can cause bad results, because politicians don’t acknowledge the potential for such failures.

  • What’s Not Seen

    Like CFL lightbulbs “saving” the environment, then poisoning people when they break.


  • Harry Rossman

    Let’s not forget the people who get sick from constant exposure to second-hand smoke.

    Give me a break!! Nature puts far more junk in the air in a year than the combined actions of all the smokers in history.

    Whenever I see someone having a conniption apparently because of someone smoking, the first eighteen things that cross my mind are: fraud.