Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ventura Poised to Ban Smoking in All Parks and Beaches

The Ventura (California) City Council Monday night agreed to move forward with drafting an ordinance that would ban outdoors smoking in all city parks, on all city beaches, and in the city Promenade and city plaza. City officials admitted that this was mainly a "feel-good" ordinance and that enforcement would not be a priority, if it would exist at all:

"Councilman Carl Morehouse, whose sister passed away from lung cancer, said he was concerned about having an already stretched police force having to enforce what he called a 'feel-good law,' but said he felt it was important to move forward with the restrictions. The city staff emphasized police enforcement would not be a priority."

The measure is not as draconian as it may sound, however, as one councilmember wants the ordinance to exempt the city's two golf courses. Her reasoning in support of the ordinance: "Basically, the question to me is does smoking in parks do more harm than good? The answer is yes, and we need to stop it."

The Rest of the Story

First, I find it interesting that smoking on golf courses does more good than harm, but that smoking in parks, beaches and plazas and promenades does more harm than good. What kind of ludicrous reasoning is this?

But I think it demonstrates just how poor the justification is for these types of laws. The inconsistency in the justification is blatant. If smoking is so bad that it needs to be banned in parks and beaches, plazas and promenades, then it certainly would need to be banned on golf courses as well. If people need to be protected from any possible exposure from secondhand smoke, then there is absolutely no justification for the Ventura City Council allowing smoking on the city's golf courses.

More importantly, the entire nature of the discussion seems to reveal how poor the justification for these types of laws is. The council is basically admitting that this is largely a "feel-good" ordinance that will not be enforced. The police department has indicated that it has no interest in enforcing the law.

This could well backfire and set back efforts to protect people from secondhand smoke. Because if smokers start to violate the law outdoors and their violations are essentially ignored, it will undermine the enforcement of smoking violations indoors. Once society condones and overlooks people ignoring smoking laws, then it sets a precedent for all smoking laws to be overlooked.

The reason why the nature of the discussion over this policy appears to be so weakly related to public health, I think, is that no one can provide solid evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke in open outdoors places where people can move freely, like parks and beaches, plazas and promenades, is a substantial public health hazard that is causing significant health problems or diseases.

Thus, they have to fall back on weaker justifications, such as emphasizing the litter problem, the nuisance, or the desire to protect children from seeing smokers.

But these types of justifications I think undermine the entire clean indoor air movement (which I see as legitimate). Because when the focus comes off of harm done to nonsmokers and on to nuisances, litter, and social engineering, I think we lose (and should lose).

Anti-smoking groups which included the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association are apparently supporting this ordinance. I would suggest that they are hurting the overall cause of protecting people from secondhand smoke by doing so. Because once we start supporting measures for which we cannot provide solid scientific evidence to back up our claims (that the measure is an intrusion that is necessary to prevent a substantial public health problem), then our ability to effectively promote measures for which we can actually document a serious public health threat is going to be compromised.

No comments: