I sent the following commentary to the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed section on Tuesday, August 12; it is unknown if they will use it:
I’M A SMOKER, NOT A CRIMINAL
by Rich Perelman
Who does Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks think he’s kidding?
Trailing State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas in the November race for County Supervisor, Parks has decided to garner public attention by making criminals out of about 384,000 citizens of the City of Los Angeles and 989,000 in the County of Los Angeles.
He wants to ban smoking essentially anywhere. On street corners, on the sidewalk, anywhere you can think of on public property.
In an August 12 editorial on the CityWatchLA.com Web site, Parks demonstrated his complete disregard for anything close to the truth about smoking in his very first sentence:
"Secondhand smoke is the number one cause of preventable health disease in America. There are no questions regarding the negative health effects. Research has shown that inhaling secondhand smoke is more harmful than actually smoking, primarily due to the unfiltered nature of the smoke and its having been cooled by the air."
Let’s give Parks the benefit of the doubt and simply assume he hasn’t read the research. As the editor of CigarCyclopedia.com, a site about cigars that drew 1.6 million visits in 2007, I follow smoking legislation and research closely. There is no research anywhere that cites secondhand smoke – especially in outdoor settings – as anything close to the health risk of direct smoking. In fact, the chemical nature of so-called environmental tobacco smoke is considerably diluted with exposure to outdoor air and wind. Perhaps Mr. Parks just made this up for effect.
He can color this any way he wants, but simple mathematics show that his proposal tells almost a million people in Los Angeles County that they are subject to criminal penalties because they enjoy a legal product: tobacco.
Even some anti-tobacco advocates sees this kind of legislation as counter-productive and silly. Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the Boston University School of Public Health and a long-time supporter of indoor smoking bans, is dead-set against outdoor bans and he explains why in a recent blog entry about a similar ban in tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com:
"There is clearly no need to ban smoking in every outdoor location in a city in order to protect nonsmokers from the hazards of tobacco smoke exposure. Banning smoking on every street and in every sidewalk, alley and parking lot is simply not justified by any science which demonstrates that exposure to secondhand smoke in these locations represents a significant public health problem."
He also notes that the same justifications used "to ban smoking in virtually all outdoors locations could also be used to ban the consumption of fatty foods in public, or even to ban obese people from public places."
Perhaps the svelte Mr. Parks has these in mind as well.
Parks claims in his editorial, "This is not a request that will drain law enforcement resources but primarily would be a code enforcement activity via either an infraction or misdemeanor." This is, in my view, simply a lie, since Parks – for 36 years a member of the Los Angeles Police Department and chief from 1997-2002 – knows that enforcement of infractions and misdemeanors is done by the Los Angeles Police Department and then prosecuted by the already-overloaded City Attorney’s Office. Isn’t their time better spent continuing their efforts to fight violent crime, gang activities and enforcing existing Municipal Code prohibitions against graffiti and drug use?
If this ordinance passes, how can police patrols even consider doing anything else than make arrests or issue citations any time they see two or more people smoking on the street? Or will they simply ignore it and leave this law either unenforced or enforced only on a random basis?
Parks is wrong when he says that outdoor secondhand smoke is a serious health threat. It is not.
If he wants to help smokers quit, the city can provide free counseling and anti-tobacco education. If he wants to take smoking off of the streets, then the establishment of specific, adults-only facilities – with blackened windows – for tobacco smoking should be licensed where those who wish to indulge are welcome and those who do not want to be around tobacco smoke can stay away.
But to pander to the non-smoking population and say that people who consume a legal product are criminals smacks of a return to widespread, government-enforced discrimination that should never even be contemplated in a society supposedly built on individual freedoms and tolerance.
Councilman Parks, please withdraw your motion, now.