Smoking Bans Contribute to Rise in Fatal DUI Crashes, Study Finds


Smokers in many major U.S. cities are having to put the patch on in restaurants. With many indoor smoking bans in place, and bans in several major cities such as Chicago and Baltimore going into effect at the start of 2008, it's worthwhile stopping to consider possible unintended consequences of such a measure.

Of course, the dangers of secondhand smoking are well-documented. But when smokers turn an alternative substance or attempt to find a substitute behavior , the effect can sometimes be more damaging than the original ban.

A recent study published in the Journal of Public Economics titled "Drunk driving after the passage of smoking bans in bars" seeks to find answers to a possible association between the two common American vices of smoking and drinking. And the answer, according to the study is, smoking may be the lesser of two evils.

The Economist reports that though well-intentioned, smoking bans have shown a correlation with an increase in the number of DUI crashes. Instead of not smoking, smokers are traveling farther to find bars in which smoking is permitted. This leads to more drunk driving, as smokers return home over longer distances.

The hard data collected by the researchers is convincing. Studying 120 counties across the United States, 20 of whom have smoking bans in place, Scott Adams and Chad Cotti from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that smoking bans increased alcohol-related fatalities by 13% in a typical county of 680,000 people. This increase is the equivalent 2.5 fatal accidents, 6 total deaths.

One could object that this might be the result of looking at recent bans and immediate behavior following a smoking ban. Yet Adams and Cotti found that this behavior continued to increase over time, with fatalities rising to 19% for bans that had been in place for 18 months or longer.

Adams and Cotti also noticed an interesting phenomenon they dubbed "jurisdiction hopping." When one county or state enacted a ban, accidents would rise in neighboring counties who received the flow of DUI smokers who flocked to neighboring counties without restrictions. Two cases in point: accidents in Delaware County, Pennsylvania increased by 26% after neighboring Delaware started its smoking ban in 2002. A ban in Boulder County, Colorado saw fatal accidents in Jefferson County, between Boulder County and Denver, rise by 40%.

Of course, such findings don't suggest that smoking bans are ill-advised and should be scrapped altogether. But the gravity of DUI accidents suggests that policymakers should pay attention to this study and consider possible consequences of sensible smoking bans. It could be a matter of life and death.

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