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10.03.07

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GOT A LIGHT?: Not that much longer, maybe, if a controversial proposal to ban smoking in San Jose parks is passed.

Unfiltered Controversy

Is the proposed ban on smoking in San Jose parks an issue of civil liberty or public health?

By Erin Sherbert


HE'S not a smoker. He doesn't like the smell, nor does he want to be near someone while they are puffing away. But that doesn't mean San Jose City Councilman Pete Constant thinks San Jose should be smoke-free.

While the council prepares to debate a ban on smoking in city parks, Constant is taking a stance doomed to be unpopular in this anti-smoking era.

The conservative councilman believes a smoking ban in parks is too difficult to enforce. More importantly, it goes too far in restricting smokers from lighting up, Constant says.

There's no doubt that Constant is running in the opposite direction on this public health debate. If it passes, San Jose would be one of the last major cities in California to make smoking illegal in public parks. The proposed ordinance includes no smoking within 25 feet of libraries and community centers, as well as sidewalks, paths and trails around parks. Sacramento, Los Angeles and Oakland already enacted similar bans.

For nonsmokers, who comprise nearly 90 percent of the Santa Clara County population, an anti-smoking ban is a breath of fresh air. On the other hand, Constant says it's a meaningless regulation with nothing to back it up.

But such a ban would hardly put San Jose in a class of its own. Cities and counties across the state have enforced much stricter rules against puffing in public, restricting smokers from lighting up just about everywhere but oncoming traffic.

In California, you can't smoke in restaurants or bars across the state. There's no lighting up at public playgrounds or tot lot areas at parks. In some cities you can't smoke on beaches, near doorways or while standing in line at the ATM. If you live in Belmont, you soon won't be able to smoke in your own apartment. And a bill pending in the California Legislature would ban smoking inside cars with children.

"Where are we going to allow smokers to smoke?" Constant said. "I don't see any harm when you are in the middle of that park."

New Study

Constant may put civil liberty issues first, but research is starting to support the belief that secondhand smoke is dangerous, even in the outdoors, public health officials say.

A 2007 study conducted by a Stanford University team suggests that a nonsmoker sitting a few feet from a smoldering cigarette will likely have a brief exposure to contaminated air.

For instance, if you sat 18 inches from a smoker at an outdoor cafe who has two cigarettes over the course of an hour, the exposure to secondhand smoke effects could be the same as if you sat one hour inside a tavern with smokers, the study concluded.

"Frankly, the more we know about secondhand smoke the more hazardous it appears to be," says Margo Sidener, president and CEO of Breathe California of the Bay Area, an anti-tobacco advocacy group.

That's why her organization has been pushing to get San Jose to ban smoking in city parks for the last two years.

But it hasn't exactly sailed through City Hall. The proposal failed to garner enough votes from the Parks and Recreation Commission a few years ago. At the time, city leaders said it would cost $50,000 to post anti-smoking signs throughout the city's 160 parks. It just couldn't be a financial priority, city officials said.

Meanwhile, cities continued to pass bans on smoking in public areas, including parks. To date, about 230 communities across the nation have banned smoking in parks, according to the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

California has some of the strictest anti-smoking laws, with 89 counties and cities banning smoking outdoors, including at cafes, parks, zoos, phone booths and piers.

At the same time, the number of people who smoke continues to decline. The number of Californians who smoke is roughly 14 percent, while only 10 percent of Santa Clara County residents are smokers.

"What we are asking for now is reasonable," Sidener said of the proposed San Jose smoking ban. "We feel the majority of the population is ready to go there."

How Much Is Enough?

The proposed smoking ban resurfaced this year when Vice Mayor David Cortese and Councilwoman Madison Nguyen asked the city to consider outlawing smoking in city parks.

It's more than an issue of secondhand smoke. Cortese says smoking in public sets a bad example for kids. Plus, he's tired of the seeing cigarette butts tossed everywhere in the parks.

The Parks and Recreation Commission has endorsed the plan for a citywide smoking ban in parks. If passed, the city would post anti-smoking signs around the parks, hoping it would be self-enforced.

But will the city stop there with its anti-smoking ban? Cortese says he has no plans to expand the smoking ban any further at this time. But public health advocates say San Jose could do more to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.

"This is a nice step, but what we would like to see is bans on smoking in doorways [of private buildings] so you don't have to go through a line of smokers," Sidener said. Realistically, smoking bans like the one San Jose is proposing probably do more for smokers than nonsmokers.

Anti-smoking laws have certainly gone far to protect nonsmokers from getting trapped in a vile cloud of smoke in public places. But more importantly, those laws are putting pressure on smokers to quit by making it less convenient for them to light up.

The end result: smokers are restricted into giving up their habit, which is the ultimate payoff of this public health debate.

"If all you can do is smoke at home, how will you carry on smoking a pack a day? It's impossible," said Jacob Sullum, senior editor of Reason Magazine, a libertarian publication, who also wrote a book about the anti-smoking movement.

He said the anti-smoking laws are not just sending a health message, they are shaping a negative image of smokers by suggesting it's something you should only do in the privacy of your own home.

But it's becoming a no-win for smokers, who are a clear minority with no political voice.

The no-smoking crusade won't stop with parks and outdoor cafes, Sullum says. He believes public health officials will push for laws to make smoking anywhere near children a form of child abuse. Arkansas was the first state to make it illegal to smoke inside a car with children.

"I certainly think we have gone too far when they tell people they can't smoke on their own property," Sullum said.


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