Tuesday, December 18, 2007

IN MY VIEW: Burbank Smoking Ordinance Goes Too Far and Gives Anti-Smoking Movement a Bad Name

Claiming that businesses in downtown Burbank are losing customers because of harsh penalties for smoking on sidewalks or other outdoors areas in the downtown, a group of business owners is attempting to overturn the six-month old smoking ordinance which essentially bans smoking throughout the downtown -- outdoors.

According to Chapter 17, Article 7 of the city's municipal code: "Smoking is prohibited on all non-enclosed sidewalks, paseos, and other pedestrian areas in Downtown Burbank accessible to the general public, except within smoking areas designated pursuant to Section 17-705.
1. For the purposes of this Section, Downtown Burbank means the area bounded by Angeleno Avenue, Third Street, Magnolia Boulevard, and First Street; and the area commonly known as the Burbank Town Center and bounded by Magnolia Boulevard, Third Street, Burbank Boulevard, and the Golden State Freeway.
2. This prohibition applies to the sidewalks along public and private streets within and around the perimeter of the area defined in Subsection 1, pedestrian alleys, pedestrian paseos and plazas including but not limited to the paseo along the former Palm Avenue between First Street and San Fernando Boulevard, walkways providing access from parking lots and structures to stores or sidewalks, and all other pedestrian paths or areas that are accessible to the general public."

Essentially, this means that when you enter downtown Burbank, you cannot smoke anywhere outdoors.

The Rest of the Story

This ordinance is far broader than what would be needed to achieve the purpose of addressing the public health problem of secondhand smoke exposure. While banning smoking inside the buildings in downtown Burbank, as well as in any outdoor areas where people cannot move about freely, makes sense, it serves no significant and legitimate public health purpose to declare all of downtown Burbank a smoke-free zone.

If someone is smoking in a parking lot, how does that endanger the public's health by creating substantial, unavoidable exposure to secondhand smoke? If someone is smoking in an alleyway behind a building, how does that endanger the public's health?

Apparently, the ordinance has become somewhat of a money maker for the city, as the LA Daily News article reports that more than 250 citations have been issued at $200 a pop.

It is also a violation of the ordinance to aid or permit someone to smoke in downtown Burbank. So technically, if you light up a cigarette for another person, you are guilty of violating the law. And if someone asks you if you mind if they smoke and you say "No, go ahead," you are violating the law.

These violations are no small matter. The law is enforced by the police department and apparently, a court appearance is required even for a first violation. The article reports that one woman who received a citation for smoking in a parking lot and then forgot about her court appearance ended up having a citation issued for her arrest. That seems like a large price to pay for lighting up in a parking lot.

Ironically, the ordinance allows (forces, if you will) people to light up in their own cars, where they will expose their children and other family members to high concentrations of secondhand smoke. Better that mom should step outside into the parking lot and smoke her cigarette than smoke in the car. But not so under the terms of this ordinance.

This ordinance is more than simply nonsensical and unjustified on public health grounds. It is dangerous. It threatens to undermine the smoke-free movement by giving a bad name to those of us who are working to legitimately protect people from a serious health hazard. Smoke-free advocates are going to be viewed as fanatics who are trying to simply get rid of smoking everywhere.

In my testimony in favor of smoke-free workplaces, bars, and restaurants, one of the most common arguments used by opponents was that this was just the first step and that soon we would be trying to ban smoking everywhere - even outdoors. I argued that this wasn't the case - that we were concerned with the high levels of secondhand smoke indoors and the very substantial and devastating health effects caused to large numbers of people.

Unfortunately, it appears that I was wrong.

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