In what would be one of the most restrictive anti-smoking ordinances in the nation, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors later this month will consider banning smoking in all county-owned buildings and prohibiting smoking in public places in unincorporated areas.
Proposed by Supervisor Leon Williams, the plan would compel restaurants and bars to provide separate rooms with separate ventilation systems for smokers and non-smokers--or ban smoking entirely on the premises--rather than simply designate smoking and non-smoking areas, as they do now.
Smoking also would be banned in places of employment--again, except in separate smoking rooms--and in outdoor areas such as sports arenas, stadiums, outdoor cafes and ticket lines.
"People are very fearful of any encroachment on what they perceive to be their rights," Williams said. "But we're not saying that people can't smoke at all in public. We're just saying that in areas where people have to be together, non-smokers have a right not to suffer because they're surrounded by smokers."
Early reaction to Williams' proposal broke along predictable lines. Health groups hailed it as a way to minimize the health risks associated with so-called secondary smoke, while business organizations decried the measure as a potential economic hardship.
"This sounds like it could be a very expensive proposition for businesses," said Dot Migdal, vice president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce's local government division. "As a non-smoker, I'm sympathetic to what he's saying, but this may be going farther than one should in government regulation."
Williams' proposal consists of two separate measures--one, an amendment of a 4-year-old county ordinance that would ban smoking in county-owned or leased buildings, with the likely exception of jails, and the other, a proposed ban on smoking in public places in the county's unincorporated areas. Violators would be subject to fines of up to $500 per day.
Unlike the stringent anti-smoking proposition rejected last week by Del Mar voters, Williams' plan would not ban smoking on beaches or sidewalks but only in outdoor areas where smokers and non-smokers are close to each other and are not free to move about, such as movie theater ticket lines, seating areas of sports stadiums and restaurants.
Medical Data Is Impetus
A lifelong non-smoker, Williams explained that his motivation for proposing the tough anti-smoking measure was drawn from growing medical evidence on how the inhalation of smoke can harm the health of non-smokers, as well as from personal experience.
"You get a lung full of smoke when you walk down the halls in this building (the County Administration Center), and like everyone else, I've had the same thing happen in restaurants," Williams said. "So, when smokers say they have a right to smoke, I say, 'Yes, but I have a right not to get sick because of your cigarette smoke.' By now, there's not much dispute about the medical evidence."
Anticipating strong opposition from the restaurant industry and others, Williams said that businesses could avoid the costs of constructing separate rooms for smokers and non-smokers simply by banning smoking "and telling people they have to wait until they're outside."
That argument was seconded by Debbie Kelley, program director of the local American Lung Assn. office, who said, "The old idea that people can't go an hour or two without a cigarette is passe. People used to say that about movie theaters. If this were passed, people would get used to it over time and change their habits."
But Paul McIntyre, executive director of the San Diego Restaurant Assn., argued that the proposed ordinance would force restaurants to choose between two equally unattractive and economically burdensome options: going to the expense of constructing separate dining rooms for smokers and non-smokers, or banning smoking at the risk of losing customers who smoke.
'A Lot of Empty Seats'
"Whichever way you go, you lose," McIntyre said. "Either way, you'll end up with a lot of empty seats. I don't think our industry could absorb something like this."
Harry Florentine, vice president and general manager of the San Diego Restaurant-Tavern Assn. Inc., argued that Williams' proposal would "surely kill" many smaller establishments.
"When you start talking about putting up extra walls and air systems and changing the architectural configuration, you're getting into a pretty hefty investment," Florentine said. "We'll be there in battle stations when this thing comes up."
Williams, though, responds to arguments about the potential economic impact of his proposal by pointing to costs associated with health problems caused by "involuntary smoking" among non-smokers exposed to cigarette smoke.