Friday, February 17, 2006

Calabasas Adopts Broad Outdoor Smoking Ban; Encourages Nonsmokers to Report People Seen Smoking on Streets and Sidewalks

The Calabasas (California) City Council gave final approval Wednesday to an ordinance that would ban smoking virtually everywhere outside in the city, including streets, sidewalks, and parking lots. Smoking is banned in all of these areas any time there is someone within 20 feet who is not themselves smoking or who has not specifically consented to the individual smoking.

However, the broad smoking ban, designed not only to protect people from secondhand smoke exposure but to reduce "the potential for children to associate smoking and tobacco with a healthy lifestyle" and to affirm and promote "the family-friendly atmosphere of the City'’s public places," allows smoking in designated outdoors areas at all the city's shopping malls, including the "open-air" Calabasas Commons shopping mall.

The City is encouraging nonsmokers to confront smokers who they see smoking on the street or to report them to the City for prosecution.

In response to the question "What should I do if I witness someone violating the ordinance?" the City states: "If you are walking down the street or in other public place, you can ask the smoker to extinguish their cigarette, cigar or pipe. If you are uncomfortable doing so or the person refuses your request, please feel free to contact City code enforcement at (818) 878-4225."

Starting on March 17, smoking on the street in Calabasas is a criminal offense - a misdemeanor - and can be prosecuted through lawsuits brought against individual smokers.

And, in a little-noticed provision in the bill, any nonsmokers in the city can file a lawsuit against any smoker they see smoking on the sidewalk or street near them (within 20 feet), in any situation where the City decides to prosecute the criminal offense with a fine rather than a lawsuit:

"Any person acting for the interests of him-, her-, or itself, or of its members, or of the general public (hereinafter 'a Private Enforcer') may bring a civil action to enforce this chapter... ."

The Rest of the Story

There are several aspects of this story that I think deserve comment:

1. The Hypocrisy

Who does the Calabasas City Council think it is kidding? Are we really expected to believe that they are so concerned about small amounts of exposure to secondhand smoke affecting nonsmokers that they need to ban smoking in every outdoor place, including every street, sidewalk and parking lot when people are present, when they have failed to provide protection in the one outdoor spot where the entire city of Calabasas congregates - the Calabasas Commons shopping mall?

It seems clear that secondhand smoke is a vital concern to the Calabasas City Council, but not quite as important as the revenue that comes in to the city from shoppers.

On an isolated street somewhere, secondhand smoke is apparently a devastating health hazard and smoking needs to be banned, but in the crowded, open-air shopping mall, no way the Council wants to touch it. God forbid they should lose some retail business due to a concern over people's health!

This hypocrisy is sickening and it leads me to question the integrity and sincerity of this effort as a public health measure. Something else, other than a sincere, evidence-based concern for the public's health, appears to be driving this, and I can safely suggest that it is not compassion for the residents in the city who are addicted to nicotine.

2. The Faulty and Dangerous Justification

This is not an evidence-based public health policy. I'm aware of no evidence that transient exposure to secondhand smoke, in the form of exposure to a smoker on a street, sidewalk or parking lot, is a significant health hazard. And it certainly is not a serious public health problem.

In contrast, I think one could make the argument that in a crowded open-air shopping mall packed with children, smoking could be a concern.

So I think it's quite clear that this policy is not justified based on any sound scientific or public health grounds.

More troubling, however, is the fact that the City Council is justifying this measure, in part, based on its desire to protect children from seeing smokers. What's next? Banning fat people from the public square so that children don't associate obesity with public acceptance? How about banning gay couples from public so that children don't associate homosexuality with being an acceptable lifestyle?

Moreover, the City has now declared, essentially, that smokers are not part of a family-friendly atmosphere. We can't let children see smokers in public because they apparently make the city family unfriendly. Are fat people family unfriendly too? And we already know a number of cities that consider homosexuality to be family unfriendly. Yet the precise reasoning being used in Calabasas would now justify actions to ban gay couples from public view.

3. The Draconian Nature of the Law

Even if one were to accept that transient exposure to secondhand smoke while walking down the street was a severe public health problem that required government intervention, it would still seem ridiculous to charge violators with a criminal offense.

And to allow, and in fact encourage lawsuits to be brought against smokers who light up in a parking lot is absolutely insane. What a tremendous waste of our judicial system. Don't city prosecutors, judges, and city courts have more important and pressing matters than conducting hearings and trials to determine whether someone was 19 or 21 feet away from a nonsmoker when they lit up a cigarette on a street corner?

4. The Encouragement of Confrontation and Tormenting of Smokers

It is quite clear that the city of Calabasas is encouraging and promoting confrontation between smokers and nonsmokers. They are creating a situation in which nonsmokers are encouraged to confront anyone they see smoking. And any individual in the city can now file a lawsuit against any other individual, simply for lighting up in public. Is this really the kind of "family friendly" atmosphere that the city of Calabasas wants to promote?

Honestly, it appears that this is exactly what Calabasas has in mind. Why else would they make this a criminal offense, allow lawsuits against individual smokers for lighting up in public, and specifically allow any individual to bring a lawsuit against any smoker who lights up?

I want to emphasize that there is nothing the city can do, under the law, to prevent a citizen from bringing a lawsuit against a smoker. If the city decides not to bring a lawsuit itself, then any citizen can bring a lawsuit against that smoker himself. And the city can't stop it.

The rest of the story is that anti-smoking efforts in Calabasas have long since left the realm of public health, scientific evidence-based policy, and simple reason. They have now entered the realm of complete insanity.

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