Nanny State

Bernie Parks Encourages Smoking

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Los Angeles City Council Member Bernard Parks wants to ban smoking "wherever people congregate or there is an expectation of people being present." In short, in addition to the existing state ban on smoking in indoor workplaces, he wants to ban smoking in virtually all outdoor locations. Parks claims "secondhand smoke is the number one cause of preventable health disease in America."

This will come as a surprise to—well, almost everyone, including the CDC, which says smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. It attributes 400,000 deaths a year to smoking, more than 100 times its estimate for the number of deaths caused by exposure to secondhand smoke. But it's understandable that Parks' figures are out of whack, since he thinks "research has shown that inhaling secondhand smoke is more harmful than actually smoking." In other words, unlike every other poison known to man, tobacco smoke becomes more dangerous in smaller doses. By this logic, smoke-free air is more dangerous than secondhand smoke.

Parks seems genuinely confused. But as I've noted, this sort of confusion among policy makers has been fostered by public health officials and anti-smoking activists who have hyped the dangers of secondhand smoke so much that they've undermined warnings about smoking. "If you take this message seriously," Michael Siegel writes on his tobacco policy blog, "a rational nonsmoker might actually start smoking. After all, according to the message, it's better to smoke yourself than to be exposed to secondhand smoke."

Siegel, who has long supported bans on smoking in the workplace, believes bans like the one proposed by Parks go too far:

Anti-smoking advocates…are promoting such extreme proposals that go far beyond the documented scientific evidence that they need to create their own facts in order to justify these proposals.

You can't credibly argue that smoking needs to be banned everywhere outdoors to protect the health of nonsmokers using the actual truth about the severity of health risk from secondhand smoke exposure. There simply is no evidence that a few wisps of secondhand smoke, as one might encounter from someone smoking on a sidewalk or in a street, parking lot, or park puts people's health at risk and represents a significant public health problem. 

I agree with Siegel that broad outdoor smoking bans are not justified by any health risk that secondhand smoke poses. But unlike him, I'm also against government-imposed smoking bans on private property, including businesses as well as residences. And Parks, for all his fanaticism, offers an argument that supports this position, saying his aim is to "move smokers and smoking away from people who do not choose to either smoke or inhale secondhand smoke." What if we had indoor locations where people were allowed to smoke and where everyone who entered knew about this rule? Maybe people also could have a drink or a bite to eat in these places, which would be restricted to customers who "choose to either smoke or inhale secondhand smoke." Surely this is an idea Parks could get behind.