Smoke and Mirrors

Santa Rosa's outdoor smoking ban and Prop. 86

A new ordinance banning smoking on all city-owned land and in outdoor eating and drinking areas goes into effect in Santa Rosa on Dec. 1. While that’s obviously bad news for smokers – the non-smoking majority should be troubled too. The process by which the ban was approved represents a scary trend towards a government that too often limits individual freedom, dispenses with due process, and rejects science.

When Santa Rosans first learned about the proposed ban, members of the city council appeared genuinely surprised by the strength of opposition. Councilmember Lee Pierce, a proponent of the ban, responded to concerns by convening an ad hoc committee tasked with proposing amendments to the ordinance. Unfortunately, Pierce stacked the committee with public employees and members of anti-tobacco organizations like the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Sonoma County-some of them not even Santa Rosa residents-and then required them to reach a consensus with representatives of downtown businesses about any amendments. Of course, that was impossible. The draconian ban slid through the counsel without meaningful amendments.

Some claim this ordinance is essential to protect public health. But while a whiff of someone else’s cigarette smoke outdoors might be a nuisance, it is insignificant in the context of health risks we assume every day.

Today state law declares “encouraging all persons to quit tobacco use shall be the highest priority in disease prevention for the State of California”-and seemingly any method to achieve this goal is considered fair. The state has even tried to outlaw the purchase of cigarettes by adults, with legislation to raise the smoking age to 21. Incidentally, the principal proponent of that measure in 2002 was Dr. Leonard Klay, a Santa Rosa obstetrician and gynecologist who served on the committee to address opponent’s concerns with Santa Rosa’s proposed ban.

Is the single-minded pursuit of smoking cessation warranted? Key risk factors that contribute to the costs of disease prevention and treatment in California include tobacco use, physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and being overweight or obese. Tobacco use is the smallest of these categories, at 15 percent of Californians-compared to 23 percent who report they have “no leisure time physical activity,” 73 percent who don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, 37 percent who are overweight and 22 percent who are obese-and the number of Californians that smoke is the only category getting smaller every year.

Ironically, because it is easier to tax smokers than it is to tax couch potatoes, Proposition 86 on November’s ballot will increase the tobacco tax to a level that amounts to $1,400 per year for a pack-a-day smoker. The largest portion of the funds generated would be used to pay for hospital emergency care, but some would go to causes as wide-ranging as obesity treatment.

When hospitals went looking for another revenue source in 2004, they proposed a phone tax that county voters rejected as unfair. Now that the proposed tax is on smokers instead of phone-users, proponents hope local voters won’t care if it is fair or not.

Law enforcement statistics show that our drug laws are racist, ageist, and classist-and our tobacco laws also abuse those in our society who have the least political power. In Santa Rosa , our smoking policy is one that gives clear preference to the already privileged: Pierce has said more than once that he thinks it is reasonable to allow people at the public golf course to smoke cigars—but apparently not to let people smoke a cigarette while waiting for the bus.

Good public policy balances the benefits of mandates with the costs of curtailing private rights and liberties. Often, citizens work out ways to accommodate diverse preferences, despite their government’s efforts to impose control, such as when smoking was banned in California restaurants and bars and proprietors opened up patio and other outdoor seating where their smoking clientele were still welcome. Now, less than 10 years later, Santa Rosa has prohibited even that smidgen of tolerance, without a fair and open process.

If the goal is to get people to stop smoking, then why don’t we dedicate all of the tobacco tax funds (instead of just 1 percent from Prop. 86) to programs that help smokers quit?

As smokers are increasingly pushed out of our downtown and the public process, the stink of the cigarette is being replaced by the suffocating stench of ever-more invasive and unaccountable government.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters lives in Santa Rosa and is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a free market think tank.