Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Another Nonsensical Smoke-Free Law is Enacted

The Alexandria (Louisiana) City Council last night voted unanimously to ban smoking outdoors in the city's parks, but not indoors in offices, restaurants that serve alcohol, or other indoor workplaces.

According to an article in the Town Talk, "it will be against city law to light up: in restaurants that don't serve alcohol; in city vehicles, parks and buildings; while standing in line at a theater; within 50 feet of a health care facility entrance or exit; in banks and other business areas where the public gathers; churches; and sporting arenas. Locations not covered by the law include private homes, cars, bars and restaurants holding a liquor license. The smoking ban also will not reach into private business offices or employee break rooms."

According to the article, the American Cancer Society at first indicated that it would not back an inconsistent law that failed to protect workers from secondhand smoke, but later backed down.

The article indicates that the law will be enforced by penalizing smokers who violate the provisions, rather than requiring businesses to comply with the law by disallowing smoking in their establishments.

The Rest of the Story

I think this is another example of what seems to be a trend of nonsensical smoking policies that is being supported by anti-smoking organizations. Here, secondhand smoke is viewed to be such a health hazard that even small and transient exposure must be prevented by banning smoking outdoors in parks, yet not such a hazard that workers in the majority of workplaces in Lafayette (including offices, where the majority of the public nationwide has been protected for nearly a decade) need to be protected.

It also doesn't make sense to me to ban smoking in parks, where exposure is small, transient, and largely avoidable, but not in all restaurants, where exposure is large, sustained, and non-avoidable for employees who work at these establishments.

Furthermore, this law is largely a waste, because it is well-documented that penalizing smokers for infractions of smoke-free laws is not an effective way of enforcing these laws. Unless business owners are responsible for enforcing the law, it is unlikely that it will be seriously enforced.

Are police officers going to start coming into restaurants and issuing citations to people who are smoking? Are they going to patrol the parks and issue tickets to smokers? Do we even want the police to be pre-occupied with this task when there are far more important things that the police need to be doing?

I think the American Cancer Society was on the right track when it apparently had decided that a consistent public health policy is the only type that is worthy of supporting. Unfortunately, it appears to have changed its tune at the last minute. It ended up, it appears, supporting an irrational and nonsensical policy that has no public health justification.

While it appears that smoke-free advocates in Louisiana are arguing that this is at least a step in the right direction, I would counter that it is actually a step in the wrong direction.

Enacting irrational, inconsistent, hypocritical, nonsensical, unjustified, ineffective, and irresponsible public policy is not, in my view, a step in the right direction. It is simply not something that I think public health practitioners should be supporting.

Moreover, I think it sets a bad precedent for other localities, frames the issue in exactly the wrong way, and detracts from, or greatly distorts the important public health message that needs to be communicated to the public.

Supporting ordinances such as this one also, I think, harms the reputation of the smoke-free movement by casting us as public health practitioners whose goal is simply to limit the places where people can smoke, rather than rationally and consistently confront a serious public health problem.

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