August 16-22, 2006

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smoking ban

Urchin begone: While Santa Rosa City Councilman Lee Pierce says he has no problem with golfers smoking cigars, he is extremely concerned about the pressing health issue of more plebian pleasures enjoyed on city streets.

Smoke Signal

Santa Rosa's law mostly affects teens, poor and homeless

By Joy Lanzendorfer

While several places in the North Bay have banned smoking--Windsor and Healdsburg no longer allow it in their downtown plazas, and Marin County has banned it in parks and on beaches--nowhere is quite as strict as Santa Rosa will be.

In fact, Santa Rosa's new nonsmoking law, which goes into effect Dec. 1, is one of the strictest in the nation. The ordinance, which passed the city council in a 5-1 vote, would make it illegal to smoke cigarettes on all city property, such as bus stops and parks, and around all privately owned businesses, including bars, restaurants and coffee shops. Violators could be subject to fines starting at $100.

Since an estimated 86 percent of Santa Rosans don't smoke, this will just mean less annoyance, according to councilmember Lee Pierce. "Lots of times, when I have gone with constituents to Peet's in downtown Santa Rosa, the inside was full and the tables outside were filled with smokers and smoke," he says. "So we had to leave, coffee in hand and clothes filled with smoke, to find some place to sit in the park, and then the whole thing happened all over again."

Pierce believes most people feel this way about cigarette smoke. He proposed the law to the city council after a bus driver spoke about secondhand smoke drifting into the buses at transit stops, annoying him and the passengers.

While some opponents call the new law draconian, it's part of a trend. In March, the city council in the Southern California city of Calabasas voted in the strictest antismoking law in the nation, which is similar to Santa Rosa's new law. In fact, over 700 cities in the United States, including Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, are now restricting smoking outside.

The major reason for the ban is public health. Secondhand smoke has long been linked with asthma, cancer and heart disease. In January, California's Air Resources Board declared second-hand smoke to be a toxic air contaminant.

"The thing that convinced me to vote for the ordinance was when several health experts talked about the dangers of secondhand smoke," says Santa Rosa mayor Jane Bender. "I know there's an argument about whether there is as much danger when exposed to the smoke outside as inside, but the health issues are well-documented."

While few people dispute that secondhand smoke is a health risk, the studies establishing that fact are based on prolonged indoor exposure. The effect of the smoke in well-ventilated outdoor areas is not as clear.

"This law is based on junk science," says Aaron Smith, chairman of the Drug Policy Forum, which promotes individual responsibility in drug use. "There just isn't any scientific data that says that casual exposure to smoke outside can cause ill health in the vast majority of people."

Opponents are also concerned that the city council is overstepping its boundaries by telling private businesses what to do. When the state banned smoking in bars, some businesses redesigned their patios so customers could comfortably smoke while still obeying the law. With the new ordinance, businesses will no longer have that choice.

"We don't think a smoker has an inherent right to light up on someone else's property," says Smith. "But we do think it should be up to the business owner. This ordinance means that if a man is smoking on the patio of an over-21 establishment at 1:30am, the police could come in and cite him and the business owner for allowing it."

How the law will be enforced is unclear. Although the police will cite violators, the city won't be sending police officers out to ticket people, according to Bender.

"We have too many other issues to comply with," she says.

Pierce hopes that smokers will voluntarily respect the law, although he admits that some people are likely to ignore it. If so, people could always call the police and report the offense.

However, in some cases smoking outside may be acceptable if no one else is affected, Pierce says.

"It's OK, say, for people on the golf course to smoke their cigar as long as there are no people on the cutting green objecting," he says.

But while only 14 percent of Santa Rosans smoke, most of those are low-income.

"There is a little bit of a class issue going on here," says Smith. "Pierce has been saying it's OK for people on a golf course to smoke, because he can relate to that. He can't relate to the guy who got off the nine-to-five job and wants to unwind with a beer and a cigarette."

The law was originally set to go into effect Sept. 1, but Pierce moved it to Dec.1 to give committees a chance to review the bill.

His intentions, he says, are to provide a clean, nonsmoking environment for all Santa Rosa citizens.

"We're not out to be punishing just to be that way," he says. "We're just taking the research from experts and trying to apply it in the most thoughtful way we can."

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