Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Des Moines City Council Considering Ban on Smoking in Municipal Parking Garages

The Des Moines City Council is presently considering an ordinance that would ban smoking in municipal parking garages. Citing "complaints from people who dislike walking through secondhand smoke to get to or from their cars," City Councilwoman Christine Hensley announced plans to introduce a ban on smoking in city parking garages, noting: "You can actually walk through it, and smoke is on your clothing."

A City Council committee will consider the proposal at a public meeting tonight.

The city has had an ordinance in place since 1988 which bans smoking in municipal buildings.

According to the Des Moines Register article: "Councilman Tom Vlassis, who stopped smoking about three years ago, said he will consider the garage ban but is uncertain if it's practical. 'With all the pollution that goes in a parking garage because of the cars, I don't know if it would be effective at all,' Vlassis said. 'It's not normally a gathering place.'"

In an op-ed point-counterpoint published Monday in the Des Moines Register, Hensley explains the reasoning behind her proposal: "We have received more and more complaints about the smoke filling cars as people drive through the smokers, the smell penetrating their clothes when they walk through the smokers to the skywalk and the large groups gathering at many of the skywalk entrances, causing safety concerns."

In the counterpoint column, Richard Maynard, Iowa Coordinator for The Smoker's Club Inc. (and a Rest of the Story reader), counters: "At first, I thought maybe Christine Hensley was trying to protect smokers from the double-whammy of smoking while inhaling toxic fumes from car exhaust. Then, my more cynical side told me it must be a ploy to make smoking bans in bars and restaurants sound more reasonable. Whatever the case, the fact remains that brief exposure to secondhand smoke may be irritating to some, but it is not a public-health issue, despite what the George W. Bush-appointed surgeon general claimed last summer."

Maynard quotes two tobacco control researchers who have shared similar sentiments about outdoor smoking bans in places where nonsmokers can easily avoid anything but transient secondhand smoke exposure.

First, he quotes Dr. Simon Chapman, editor of the journal Tobacco Control, as stating: "For some rare individuals with exquisite sensitivity, an acute exposure (to SHS) might precipitate an adverse episode. Similar claims are made about a large range of environmental agents. But, in general, public policy is not based on cocooning such people from exposures that are inconsequential to nearly everyone."

Second, he quotes me as stating that: "these policies (outdoor smoking bans) are not supported by scientific evidence." These non-science-based policies represent "social engineering at its worst. It treats smokers as social pariahs, demonstrates intolerance, and takes tobacco control out of the realm of public health, turning it instead into a non-evidence-based moral crusade."

The Rest of the Story

I agree with Dr. Chapman and with Richard Maynard on this issue. There simply is not evidence that transient exposure to secondhand smoke, such as that associated with walking or driving through a parking lot, is an important public health hazard that warrants invoking the state's police powers to ban smoking in these facilities. There is no substantial hazard to anyone except those with exquisite sensitivity to secondhand smoke and there seems little reason to formulate public policy based on the hypothetical existence of such rare individuals in Des Moines.

The most important thing that I think needs to be recognized is that this is not a science-based public health policy. It is not truly based on a concern for protecting the health of the public. Instead, it appears to be primarily designed to avoid what its proponents see as a nuisance: having to endure, even for a few moments, the presence of smokers.

The smell of the smoke seems to be the predominant concern that is driving this proposal. Hensley readily admits that the motivating force behind the proposal is "complaints about the smoke filling cars as people drive through the smokers, the smell penetrating their clothes when they walk through the smokers to the skywalk."

Is it really that bad that the city needs to enact an ordinance to deal with this? Are there not more important health concerns for the city to worry about?

The irony of the proposal, of course, is that while the city is apparently worried about the health effects of exposure to a few smokers for several seconds, the proposal does nothing to address the exposure to the car fumes in the parking garages. And while the city is spending all this time worrying about minute doses of exposure in parking garages, it is doing nothing to address the substantial exposure that takes place in its bars and restaurants, where workers may be exposed for more than 40 hours per week.

Sure - the city's hands are tied by the state's law which preempts bar and restaurant smoking regulations; but if Councilwoman Hensley is so concerned about the effects of secondhand smoke on Des Moines residents, she would be better off mounting a campaign to urge state lawmakers to repeal the state's preemption of local smoking regulation.

This story highlights the fact that the anti-smoking movement is rapidly spiraling out of control. Extremism in the movement is now ruling the day. I am quite sure that Iowa tobacco control groups will not speak out against this proposal; thus, the extremist element of the anti-smoking movement effectively represents all of us in tobacco control.

This is precisely the sort of thing that I think could eventually erode our credibility and reputation with the public. If we are perceived as wanting government to ban smoking in order to prevent getting smoke on our clothes, does this not undermine efforts to get the public to embrace us as reasonable public health practitioners who seek government intervention only because of a severe and substantial public health hazard?

I'm glad that Richard took the initiative to write the counterpoint argument, and I'm delighted that, through his quoting of my opinion on this issue, I can play a role in the consideration of this public policy issue.

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