Thursday, April 8, 2010

Compassionate Criminalization of Smokers

am an asthma sufferer. I do not like cigarette smoke in my lungs, on my clothing, or in my wig for sure! That plastic just reeks after a smoke filled venue! I'm glad we no longer smoke in bars. It’s very difficult to look at cigarette smoking in public as something that should be protected by law. However, I absolutely do not support a ban on smoking patios that ignores the root cause of high rates of smoking among minority populations, places additional financial burdens on small businesses, and exploits children as a means to an end.

I recently attended the hearings to banning smoking patios in San Francisco. When I spoke up in defense of smoking patios, I was told by one man that I “didn’t care about the GLBT community” because I do not support a ban on smoking in the city of San Francisco. He argued that smoking on a smoking patio was the same as walking into a bar and spraying DDT all over the place. “Would you support that?” I was asked. Another woman who rents a unit to a smoker spoke out saying that she wanted the freedom to evict her tenant simply because she “hates smokers and smoking”. Where do we draw the line?

The Anti-Smoking Coalition – who is behind these proposed bans – is a rabid bunch that will do just about anything to disallow smoking in public. At the hearings, children were paraded shamelessly (dare I say “exploitatively”?) in front of the Board of Supervisors and other attendees. The children were there to speak about asthma and were used by the Anti-Smoking Coalition to tug at our heartstrings. What are children doing on smoking patios anyway? Fact is that the two highest causes of asthma are high-density housing and car exhaust – not second hand smoke. If the Anti-Smoking Coalition is as concerned about children’s health as it makes itself out to be, why are they not calling for some sort of referendum regarding the two highest causes of asthma, both of which are particularly relevant in an urban environment like San Francisco? Maybe we should all get out of our cars and take MUNI! They certainly could use the cash!

Previous smoking bans were put in place to keep smoke contained to one area and away from non-smokers. Many bars – especially Castro neighborhood businesses – opened smoking patios in order to keep smoke outside and comply with city codes. Many of these bars and restaurants have spent thousands of dollars creating smoking patios. The new law – sponsored by Supervisor Eric Mar – would ban smoking patios, costing bars and restaurants even more money. After pressure from bar and restaurant owners, Mar has suggested that a grandfather clause be added to the new ruling to allow previously-existing patios to stay open with no smoking 10 feet from the door. Also the new ban sends smokers into the street to be 15 feet away from the front entrance of a business or building. That means smokers in the street littering the gutters with butts instead of ash trays. More litter in the bay is better than smoking?

From where I see it, this is not about smoking patios. This is a freedom of choice issue. In an economic downturn, placing added financial hardship on small businesses – in the way of lost opportunity for business – is not a solution. And certainly, criminalizing personal behaviors and pushing smokers out of sight is not a solution either.

Besides being told that I “didn’t care about the GLBT community” I learned at the hearings that there are far fewer smokers in San Francisco than just a few years ago! Harm reduction strategies are working. We have already created a dialogue and citywide plan that is reducing the number of people who smoke. Why change what’s already working?

Perhaps we should put our time and effort into lobbying tobacco companies. After all, tobacco companies are responsible for creating and selling a product that is unhealthy and addictive. I say go for the real criminals! Why not hold hearings in favor of more funding for educational campaigns and quit-smoking programs for smokers? Why not allocate prevention funding specifically to youth and other marginalized populations at most risk of smoking?

Urban environments are by nature a melting pot of ideas, choices, and freedoms. San Franciscans have the freedom to choose what businesses they frequent and if those businesses have smoking patios or not. Similarly, we have the choice to drive cars or to utilize public transportation. We decide where our money goes and whether it goes into education and prevention versus the criminalization of personal choices.

I dislike the smell, the taste, and the slew of health problems – and healthcare costs! – that come along with cigarette smoking as much as the next person. What I dislike even more, however, is criminalizing personal choices. Criminalizing adult behavior removes some of the freedoms and foundations on which this "liberal" city is built. Criminalization is never a solution. Imposing bans on smoking patios under the guise of “Save the Children” propaganda is both exploitative and factually unfounded.

We must be vigilant that good intentions do not create laws that disenfranchise the disenfranchised. Smoking surely is a health concern but the way to solve health concerns is education not criminalization. We have in place safety measures that work by reducing the number of smokers and the inhalation of second hand smoke and these extra measures are far too strict.We all want to enjoy nightlife and many of us don't want to breath second hand smoke and there are many choices of venue to go to that don't allow smoking. Finally to the person who wrote to me saying; "I pass out, my throat closes; and I must be rushed to the hospital every time I breath in a hint of smoke"; I worry that an urban environment is far too dangerous for you. I don't want to see you die so make the right choice and please stay away from the smoking patios and be very careful walking down the street. I do care about your issues so I worry what choices you are making to live in an urban and uncontrolled environment. For the rest of us I say make a wise choice and be glad you can; even if your a smoker.