Friday, November 17, 2006

Belmont (California) City Council Approves Drafting of Ordinance to Ban Smoking Everywhere Except Detached, Single-Family Homes

The Belmont (California) City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to draft an ordinance for consideration by the Council that would ban smoking in all indoor and outdoor areas of the city with the exception of detached, single-family homes and the possible additional exception of private cars (article 1; article 2; article 3; article 4; article 5).

The ordinance has not been drafted, so the precise details are not clear. However, the clear directive given to the city attorney was to draft an ordinance that essentially bans smoking everywhere, except in detached, single-family homes. Smoking would apparently be banned on all streets and sidewalks and in parks and parking lots, as well as everywhere else outdoors, including private residential property. Two of the newspaper articles were in conflict over whether smoking was to be banned in private cars or not. Either way, enactment of such an ordinance would be historic. The ordinance would be the most restrictive ever enacted, surpassing by far the restriction of smoking by Calabasas (also in California) in any outdoor area where a nonsmoker is within 25 feet.

According to an article in the San Mateo County Daily Journal: "As first reported in the Daily Journal yesterday, the Belmont City Council voted unanimously to draft an ordinance that will ban smoking in all areas of the city except for detached, single-family residences. It would make Belmont the first city in the nation to draft such a broad ban. By law, a person caught smoking in a park, on the street or in their apartment could be slapped with a ticket."

Another Daily Journal article quoted Councilmember Dave Warden as stating: "You can'’t walk down the street with a beer, but you can have a cigarette. You shouldn'’t be allowed to do that. I just think it shouldn'’t be allowed anywhere except in someone'’s house. If you want to do that, that'’s fine."”

It appears that the anti-smoking organizations which were interviewed for these newspaper articles expressed support for the concept. These include the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and Breathe California.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, "'There's some momentum going on,' said Caren Licavoli, a vice president with Breathe California, a non-profit supportive of tougher anti-smoking laws. 'The ball is rolling.'''

The same article stated: "Angie Carrillo, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, also was enthusiastic. 'Anytime we can prevent smoking, that's always a victory,' she said."

Once drafted, the ordinance will be formally considered by the Belmont City Council early next year.

The Rest of the Story

According to the Palo Alto Daily News, Philip Morris stated its opposition to the proposed ordinance: "'We understand and agree that people should be able to avoid being around secondhand smoke, particularly in places where they must go, such as public buildings, public transportation,' said Bill Phelps, spokesman for Philip Morris USA. 'However, we think that complete bans on outdoor smoking go too far.'"

I would have to agree with Philip Morris on this one. The proposed smoking ban does go too far. It regulates smoking even when there is no risk to any bystander and it aims to protect the population from exposure to evinfinitesimaltesmal dose of secondhand smoke. It's like using a sledgehammer to drive a quarter-inch nail.

"Philip Morris has no intention of fighting Belmont's legislation, Phelps said."

I do, however. I don't think anti-smoking groups and advocates can sit idly by and watch something like this happen. I think we should be actively opposing this legislation, and by no means should we be supporting it.

It needs to be understood that there is apparently more underlying the proposal than a simple desire to prevent disease among nonsmokers due to secondhand smoke exposure. If that were the sole intention, then smoking would only need to banned in areas where there is substantial exposure among nonsmokers and where nonsmokers could not easily avoid that exposure -- in other words, where regulation of smoking was necessary to address a serious public health problem.

It appears to me that this proposed policy goes far beyond simply aiming to protect the health of nonsmokers. It seems that the proposal is aiming to do one or more of the following: (1) to protect nonsmokers from having even the possibility of having to experience even the annoyance of breathing in a few wisps of secondhand smoke; (2) to protect nonsmokers from having to even see a smoker; and (3) to make a moral statement about smoking, condemning it as something that needs to be restricted to the confines of the private home.

The statement by Councilmember Warden confirms the intent behind the proposal. By comparing smoking in public with drinking a beer in public, he seems to display a misunderstanding of what smoking regulations are all about. The issue is completely different. There is no secondhand beer exposure. The concern is for public drunkenness, which is a potential threat to the public's safety. But with smoking, people who smoke outdoors are actually doing the public a favor. The alternative would be smoking indoors, where the smoke truly would present a public health threat.

Smoking outdoors is only a public health threat when: (1) the level of exposure is substantial; and (2) nonsmokers cannot easily avoid the exposure. Otherwise, what is being regulated is merely a nuisance, not a public health problem. I don't see a need to invoke the state's police powers and to intrude upon individual freedom so invasively simply to prevent a nuisance.

By the same logic, we should ban the use of strong perfumes in public because it creates a nuisance to people (like me) who can't stand the smell. Perfumes, like tobacco smoke, also may represent a health hazard to extremely sensitive individuals and may even trigger an asthma attack in rare situations.

If you live on a 1-acre lot in Belmont, you cannot tell me that if you step outside to smoke a cigarette you are creating a public health problem, or that you are even threatening the health of any other individual. It is absurd to make that illegal and to allow the police to cite that individual with a civil violation.

In fact, what this proposal will do, if people actually abide by it, is to substantially increase secondhand smoke exposure among children of smokers. Don't we actually want smokers to refrain from smoking inside their homes and instead, to go outside to smoke so that they don't expose their children or other family members? But in Belmont, in order to comply with the proposed law, they would actually have to smoke inside the house, which will potentially create a hazardous situation for their children.

Quite possibly, this law could do more harm than good. It could likely increase the exposure of children to secondhand smoke inside the home, especially in denser residential areas where parents could reasonably fear being seen smoking if they step outside to smoke. In contrast, the law will likely do very little to reduce secondhand smoke exposure outdoors, as there isn't exactly a huge problem of exposure in streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and parks.

Another problem with the proposal is that it is essentially unenforceable. To enforce it would literally require the smoking police. The police would have to devote time to issuing tickets to people who are smoking. There are far more important things for the police to be doing than issuing fines to smokers. In reality, the police would not devote time to this (and the Belmont police have already indicated such).

In essence, then, the proposal is more of a moral statement than anything else. It is largely unenforceable and the police have already stated that they have little or no intention of enforcing it. It is therefore a feel-good policy that will do little to protect the public health and may actually increase secondhand exposure to vulnerable groups like children.

Moreover, it is quite possible that enactment of this law could lead some smokers to violate existing smoking bans in indoor places. If I'm a smoker and I have a private office in my workplace and I abide by the current law and always smoke outdoors, but now they tell me I'm not allowed to do that, I might just sneak a few drags in my office rather than risk the public's scorn by smoking outside.

Another adverse effect of this policy would be to help destroy the reputation of the anti-smoking movement. If this truly is a trend and it spreads to other cities, as one anti-smoking group expressed hope for, then the public is going to come to perceive anti-smoking advocates as fanatics whose goal is simply to ban smoking everywhere. This could well undermine our ability to promote smoking bans that really would protect the public's health, such as those which eliminate secondhand smoke exposure in workplace where people spend 40 or more hours per week, as opposed to the few seconds that they may spend breathing in smoke while walking down a street or through a parking lot.

What concerns me the most, however, is not that the public may get the perception that our goal is simply to ban smoking everywhere. My greatest concern is that our goal is simply to ban smoking everywhere.

When I went into the field of protecting the public from secondhand smoke, my understanding was that this wasn't about prohibiting smoking, it was simply about addressing the severe public health hazard posed by high levels of involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke. It now appears that I was wrong and that the ultimate goal was, and is, to simply get rid of all public smoking to completely eliminate the nuisance and protect nonsmokers from ever having to even see someone smoking.

It's beginning to look like I was sold a bill of goods.

The only thing that could change my current perception is if anti-smoking groups and advocates speak out publicly against this proposal. But so far, all I see are at least three anti-smoking groups which are actually supporting the proposal.

I'm just glad that I didn't pay a membership fee to join the smoke-free movement. Because right around now I'd be asking for a refund.

No comments: