Expanding Smoking Bans Should Worry Us All

Bay Area's nanny state is growing

The Bay Area is considered one of the most diverse, tolerant places on the planet. Its reputation as a stalwart defender of minority rights is unparalleled. “San Francisco values” is how Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly likes to describe our uniqueness.

The region’s policy decisions on hot-button topics usually strike a careful balance between protecting private rights and public health. But there’s one group that we apparently see as nothing but a bunch of social pariahs: smokers.

Two years ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed what was, at the time, one of the most comprehensive outdoor smoking bans in the state, making it illegal to smoke in city-owned parks and squares.

Smoking has long been banned at outdoor restaurants and theaters in Berkeley, and similar outdoor smoking restrictions have recently been implemented in a half-dozen other Bay Area cities as well as in unincorporated Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties. An ordinance enacted last year in Dublin declared secondhand smoke a public nuisance and made it easier for residents there to sue each other over secondhand smoke.

In Belmont, it is already illegal to smoke in hallways and other common areas in apartment buildings and similar multi-unit housing complexes. But next month the Belmont City Council is expected to go even further by approving the nation’s most restrictive anti-smoking policy. It will soon be illegal to smoke anywhere in Belmont except in your detached, single-family home.

You won’t be able smoke outside. You won’t be able to smoke in your car or in your apartment. If you can come up with the $900,000 median price, you can buy a stand-alone house and smoke there – at least for now. This final refuge for smokers is surely the next target of the prohibitionist regulators.

In Belmont whatever you want to do in the privacy of your own apartment bedroom is ok – just as long as you don’t smoke when you do it. This creeping Bay Area nanny state should worry us all, not just smokers.

Smoking causes cancer. Smokers assume the risks. But, proponents of the nanny state claim we have to stop them because smokers impose great costs on society through increased health care costs and other expenses. Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum, author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade shows otherwise: smokers don’t fleece us by bleeding Medicaid and Social Security because they die sooner than nonsmokers.

Fine, but we still have to ban smoking because secondhand smoke will kill innocent bystanders, according to ban proponents. But here the science is extremely murky.

Sullum writes, “The studies that link secondhand smoke to these illnesses [cancer, heart attacks] involve intense, long-term exposure, typically among people who have lived with smokers for decades. Even in these studies, it’s difficult to demonstrate an effect, precisely because the doses of toxins and carcinogens bystanders passively absorb are much smaller than the doses absorbed by smokers.”

In toxicology, the dose makes the poison. How much smoke are you getting sitting a quarter-mile away from a smoker in the same Belmont apartment complex? You’ll get struck by lightning before that level of smoke kills you.

We’ve gone from banning smoking in restaurants and bars to banning smoking everywhere.

What’s next? The food police will ban trans fat and then slink on to popular fast foods. Proposed restrictions on the use of cell phones and iPods are in the news nationally. The list goes on and on. You may not smoke, but sooner or later the nanny police will surely target something you do care about.

Does the Bay Area really want government to dictate what we can do in our own homes and apartments? You may think smoking is disgusting, but unless you think the same of personal freedom, we should all stand up against the prohibitionists on this one.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters lives in Santa Rosa and is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. An archive of her work is here. Reason’s California research and commentary is here.