Clean Air Calabasas

A smoke-free, family-friendly atmosphere of moralistic intolerance

Because it's getting hard to keep track of all the places where you're not allowed to smoke, the city council of Calabasas, California, decided to start over from scratch and make things simple. "Smoking is prohibited everywhere in the city," says a Calabasas ordinance that takes effect on March 17, "except as otherwise provided."

The exceptions are private residences, up to 20 percent of hotel rooms, "smokers' outposts" in shopping center parking lots, and "any outdoor area in which no non-smoker is present and...it is not reasonable to expect another person to arrive." The smoke-free areas, a.k.a. "everywhere else," include sidewalks, streets, bus stops, parks, the outdoor seating of bars and restaurants, and apartment balconies near common areas such as pools or laundry rooms.

The city council, which unanimously approved the ordinance last month and has started calling the Los Angeles suburb "Clean Air Calabasas, a Smoke-Free City," predicts the state government (which already prohibits smoking in indoor workplaces) will follow its example. If so, judging from the history of smoking bans, Calabasas-style restrictions eventually will move from California to the rest of the country. Before that happens, Americans should consider whether they really want to embrace the Calabasas spirit of moralistic intolerance masquerading as "public health."

Tellingly, a provision that would have permitted outdoor smoking in the presence of nonsmokers with their consent was removed from the final version of the Calabasas ban. So if you're in some deserted part of the city in the middle of the night with a friend who smokes, he is allowed to light up only if you do too.

If he lights up and you don't like it, you can file a complaint with the city, which can charge your friend with a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to six months. You also can sue him, seeking compensation for injuries inflicted by his tobacco smoke or statutory damages of $250 for each violation, plus attorneys' fees and court costs.

If you can show your friend was guilty of "oppression, fraud, malice, or conscious disregard for the public health and safety," you can recover punitive damages too. By that point, of course, he might not be your friend anymore.

"We are not trying to pit neighbor against neighbor," Calabasas Mayor Barry Groveman told the Los Angeles Times in January. "We're trying to do this in the least punitive and least disruptive way."

Which is why they decided to resolve the minor annoyance of drifting outdoor tobacco smoke through criminal charges and lawsuits—instead of, say, public stoning. Presumably the city council members also had the minimization of punitiveness and disruption in mind when they chose to criminalize not only unauthorized smoking but "allowing, aiding or abetting" it by looking the other way or putting out ashtrays.

All this may seem a little extreme when you consider there's no evidence that outdoor smoking jeopardizes the health of bystanders. But that is not really what the ban's supporters have in mind when they talk about protecting "public health."

Their aim is not just to eliminate secondhand smoke but to eliminate smoking. That's why the ordinance cites the health effects of smoking on smokers as a justification for the ban. And that's why the ban's official goals include "reducing the potential for children to associate smoking and tobacco with a healthy lifestyle" and "affirming and promoting the family-friendly atmosphere of the City's public places."

The ban's backers see smoking as a shameful vice that must be kept out of sight, an indecent activity from which adults must shield children's eyes as well as their noses. The logic of forcing people to set a good example for the kids—which also would justify banning fat people and motorcyclists from public places—reduces adults to the level of children whenever they venture out of their homes.

© Copyright 2006 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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