Thursday, March 16, 2006

Calabasas Smoking Ban Goes Into Effect Tomorrow

A smoking ban in virtually all outdoor public places in Calabasas, including streets, sidewalks, and parking lots (but of course, not at the city's shopping malls) goes into effect tomorrow.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Daily News, the incoming Mayor of Calabasas defended the ordinance as follows: "We just don't want anyone blowing smoke in someone's face. Unfortunately, what smokers do is harmful to everybody else."

According to the article, a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society in Sacramento praised the ordinance, stating: "We salute Calabasas for raising the bar. Smoke regulations can play a very important role in reducing public exposure to harmful secondhand smoke."

Also according to an article, a security guard at the Calabasas Commons confirmed that he would not enforce the smoking ban.

The Rest of the Story

The comments of the public officials in Calabasas appear to me to confirm that the rationale behind the smoking ban leaves a lot to be desired.

If the city doesn't want people blowing smoke in other people's faces, then it should pass a law outlawing blowing smoke in other people's faces. I don't think any smokers would have a problem with such a law.

And if it is true that what smokers do is harmful to everybody else, then the city should just ban smoking altogether. After all, if it smoking is a serious hazard and it harms other people, then how can the city rationalize allowing it?

It's quite clear to me that what city officials are shying away from is confronting the lack of scientific evidence that outdoor smoke in places like streets, sidewalks, and parking lots is a serious health hazard that causes any significant damage to nonsmokers in Calabasas.

The city officials do everything except talk about the hazards of smoking in outdoor environments where nonsmokers can easily avoid exposure to the smoke.

And that's no surprise. Because the ordinance is extremely hypocritical. It bans smoking in places where very few nonsmokers have any significant exposure to smoke and where they can easily avoid the exposure, but it does not prohibit smoking (in outdoor smoking areas) at the city's crowded shopping malls, where exposure cannot easily be avoided.

Presumably, what smokers do is harmful to everybody else, unless they are spending money at the city's shopping malls and helping provide needed revenue and economic prosperity to the city. Then it's OK to overlook the harm that smokers are doing to "everybody else."

If this comes down to a debate over the scientific evidence of public health hazards and the seriousness of those hazards, the Calabasas City Council is going to lose the debate hands down. So they're avoiding it like the plague. They're offering all kinds of other justifications under the sun: this is to promote family values in Calabasas...this is to set a good example for our children...this is to protect children from seeing smokers...this is to prevent litter...this is to protect the city's creeks and streams, etc.

What it's really about, however, is disdain for smokers and an attempt to punish them.

Perhaps more disturbing to me that the city officials' defense of the ordinance is the praise for this ridiculous law that is coming from anti-smoking groups. The American Cancer Society praises the law for "raising the bar." As if this is some sort of game where the more draconian your anti-smoking proposals are, the better. The ACS spokesperson correctly notes that smoking bans reduce exposure to harmful secondhand smoke, but he fails to address the issue of what evidence there is that exposure to secondhand smoke in streets, sidewalks, and parking lots is a significant public health problem.

And is it not slightly ironic that the American Cancer Society, which has refused to link secondhand smoke with breast cancer because it doesn't want to harm its "scientific credibility," is supporting a law that threatens to erode the scientific credibility of the entire anti-smoking movement because it is so obvious to the public that smoking in wide-open outdoors places is not associated with any substantial public health problems?

I don't usually condone violating or overlooking the law, but in this case, I applaud the security guard at Calabasas Commons who apparently decided that protecting the security of shoppers and stores (which is his rightful job) is more important than tracking down people smoking outside and delivering them to city prosecutors for possible criminal punishment.

If I lived in Calabasas, I would certainly look the other way if I saw smokers lighting up in streets, sidewalks, and parking lots around me. And you know what? According to the Calabasas law, I would be guilty of a criminal offense - a misdemeanor - every time that I looked the other way. Because it is a crime under the law to conceal a violation of the ordinance.
In the ultimate of ironies, my reading of the law suggests that a smoker could actually sue a nonsmoker for not reporting him or her to authorities. Because aiding, abetting, or concealing a criminal offense under the law (i.e., smoking in public) is itself a criminal offense and under the law, any citizen can bring a lawsuit against any other citizen for violating the law.

Can you imagine that? Smokers could have a great time in Calabasas. They could go around lighting up around nonsmokers, and then if those nonsmokers do not report them, they could sue them for violating the law.

The situation in Calabasas is really a mess. In my opinion, it makes a mockery of the entire smoke-free movement, which I view as a serious, evidence-based, public health effort to protect workers from a bona fide occupational hazard.

It's just a shame that anti-smoking groups are contributing to and supporting this mess. And I don't think they're doing the tobacco control movement, or the public's health, any favors by doing so.

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