Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Push for Outdoor Smoking Bans Spreads

In recent days, there have been a number of efforts to ban smoking in non-enclosed outdoor areas:
  • The Mandeville City Council (Louisiana) recently adopted an ordinance that bans smoking in most public places, including outdoor areas within 25 feet of buildings and all outdoor areas within the town's parks and parkways, including the entire lakefront. This measure allows smoking in bars and restaurants that serve liquor.
  • Tuesday, the Lafayette City-Parish Council (Louisiana) adopted a similar measure that bans smoking inside and within 25 feet of most businesses, but which allows smoking in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
  • The Buffalo Grove (Illinois) Park District is reportedly thinking about banning smoking on all park property, including parking lots. Apparently, the ban idea was sparked by the park board president having "noted that smokers have been spotted in such areas as a Willow Stream Park shelter, while he has seen Buffalo Grove Recreation Association Senior Colt baseball players smoking in a district parking lot."
  • Last Monday, the township of Cherry Hill (New Jersey) enacted a law that bans smoking on all township property, including all outdoor open areas.
  • In Muscatine (Iowa), an anti-smoking group (Tobacco-Free Muscatine) recently lobbied the City Council to ban smoking on city property, including the full outdoor grounds areas of some city buildings, such as a soccer complex and an aquatic center. The City Council did adopt a smoking ban covering some city building property, but rejected Tobacco Free Muscatine's request to ban smoking in the soccer and aquatic center parking lots.
The Rest of the Story

In general, I do not find adequate justification for banning smoking in most open outdoor areas; as I previously argued, the use of the state's police power must represent a reasonable intervention to promote the public's health, safety, or welfare and there is little evidence that smoking in open outdoor areas is a serious cause of disease or other adverse health effects.

While eliminating smoking in certain outdoor parts of town or city property may be reasonable, the measures listed above go too far, I think, by banning smoking even in large, open areas, such as parking lots and the entire lakefront of one town, where nonsmokers could easily avoid secondhand smoke if they chose to and where exposure is likely to be minimal, both in magnitude and duration.

But an even more troublesome aspect of many of the above laws is that in banning smoking outdoors, but allowing it in heavily polluted indoor workplaces, they make little public health sense. If secondhand smoke is indeed as serious a public health hazard as claimed, then it should certainly be eliminated in smoke-filled bars and restaurants where workers are exposed to high concentrations of carcinogens for 8 or more hours a day before policy makers worry about banning smoking in outdoor places like parking lots where exposure is minimal.

How much sense does it make to allow smoking in bars and restaurants, but to ban smoking outside of those buildings? If anything, that is likely to harm the public's health by discouraging smokers from smoking outside these establishments, and thus resulting in higher smoke concentrations inside. The same may be true of banning smoking in parking lots. While many smokers are courteous and may smoke in a parking area to avoid exposing nonsmokers in a park, when you ban smoking in the parking lot, you may actually be discouraging smokers from smoking in areas away from nonsmokers. Why punish precisely those smokers who are showing courtesy for nonsmokers?

While it is certainly not the fault of anti-smoking groups if policy makers adopt these broad outdoor smoking bans without their organizations' support, in at least one case (Muscatine), the broad outdoor smoking ban was apparently pushed by an anti-smoking organization. I view this as a serious problem.

Not only do I believe that such policies are not justified on public health grounds, that they make absolutely no public health sense, and that they may actually harm the public's health by increasing exposure in some areas, but I think there is a larger problem here:

By promoting such measures, I think public health practitioners may actually do more harm than good. This casts the idea of regulating smoking in public places as being overly intrusive and takes the focus away from the real issue that should be most relevant to such regulations - health risks to exposed employees in enclosed workplaces. By framing the issue in a way that detracts from the proper use of the state's police powers, general outdoor smoking bans may actually undermine efforts to protect employees who are heavily exposed and actually need protection.

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