Thursday, March 15, 2007

Proposed Belmont Smoking Ban Would Criminalize Citizens for Failing to Report People Smoking; Would Ban Smoking on All Streets and Sidewalks to Boot

Under the terms of a proposed smoking ban presented to the Belmont City Council on Tuesday evening, smoking would not only be banned on all city streets and sidewalks but citizens who fail to report smokers who they see smoking on those streets and sidewalks would be guilty of a crime - a misdemeanor.

Under section 3(a)(1) of the draft ordinance, smoking is prohibited in all public places, which by definition includes all streets and sidewalks.

Under section 10(e), "Causing, permitting, aiding, abetting, or concealing a violation of any provision of this article shall also constitute a violation of this article."

Under section 10(b), smoking in an area where it is prohibited represents a civil infraction, punishable by a fine. However, all other violations of the ordinance represent criminal offenses: "Other violations of this article constitute misdemeanors... ."

Thus, if a person permits or conceals a violation of the ordinance (i.e., someone smoking on a street or sidewalk), he or she has committed a criminal offense - a misdemeanor.

The Rest of the Story

I guess I don't want to visit Belmont any time soon. If I'm walking down the street and I see someone smoking and I fail to report it to the Belmont police, then I could be construed as permitting and/or concealing a violation of the smoking ordinance, and therefore I would be guilty of my first crime - a misdemeanor.

Imagine that - becoming a criminal simply by virtue of failing to report a person who is smoking on a sidewalk or in a street. Even if no one else is being exposed to that smoke and it is not causing any potential health problems.

Is this really what Belmont wants? To create a city where nonsmokers are guilty of a crime if they don't tattle on any smokers they see smoking in streets, on sidewalks, in parks, or any other outdoor public places?

I imagine that the law-abiding citizens of Belmont will be quite busy after this ordinance passes. Imagine the time it would take to report every person you see smoking. You might as well walk around with a clipboard all day and report to the police station before heading home for the night.

Now since aiding and abetting a violation of the ordinance is also a crime, does that not mean that if you give someone a cigarette to smoke on a street corner, you are guilty of a crime, since you have abetted and aided your fellow smoker in violating the ordinance?

Actually, if you witness someone smoking on a sidewalk and you fail to accost them and forcibly remove the cigarette from their mouth, are you not permitting a violation of the ordinance? Are you not then also guilty of committing a crime?

And say it's your own wife who is smoking on the street corner. If you don't immediately report her to the authorities, are you not concealing a violation of the ordinance, making you a criminal alongside her? Actually, correct that. She is not a criminal. Her offense is merely a civil one. She only need pay a small fine. You, however, are guilty of a misdemeanor, which could potentially carry far more severe penalties.

I can see the conversation between prison inmates now:
What are you in for?
Attempted murder. How about you?
Failing to rag on my wife for smoking in a deserted parking lot.

What if you are actually a smoker who is violating the ordinance, smoking on a street corner alongside another smoker? While you are only guilty of a minor civil violation for the smoking, you are guilty of a misdemeanor if you fail to report your friend's violation of the law.

This proposal goes way too far. Streets and sidewalks are where we want smokers to smoke: outside - and in areas where nonsmokers can quite easily avoid substantial smoke exposure. There is simply no health justification for such a sweeping ban on outdoor smoking.

Notwithstanding the claims of the Surgeon General and more than a hundred anti-smoking groups that even a brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart disease, heart attacks, and instant death, there is no scientific evidence that smoking on streets and sidewalks causes any significant public health problem.

I hate to have to say it, but what Belmont is doing is starting to look like an all-out crusade against smokers, rather than a sincere attempt to protect nonsmokers against a severe and devastating public health hazard. Why else would you want to banish smokers from every street corner, parking lot, and sidewalk?

I'm afraid that the extremist actions being considered by policy makers in Belmont, and apparently supported wholeheartedly by anti-smoking groups, are going to threaten even the more reasonable and justified efforts elsewhere in the country to protect the public from substantial exposure to secondhand smoke. This kind of fanaticism is going to give anti-smoking groups a bad name. It is going to make us look like we are crazy and unreasonable.

Is it really worth risking the protection of bar, restaurant, and casino workers throughout the nation, who truly are suffering every day from high levels of secondhand smoke exposure, in order for the people of Belmont not to have to worry about a few wisps of smoke when they walk down the street?

The rest of the story is that if you want to keep your criminal record clean, do not go to Belmont. Or if you do, make sure to wear a bag over your head so that you cannot possibly see anyone smoking.

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