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Blowing Smoke

September 22, 2002

There was the Mission Viejo City Council, teetering on the brink of being dangerously silly, before pulling itself back from the edge.

The council was considering a total ban on smoking in public parks. It's already illegal in California to light up on a playground; this would have pushed smokers off the grounds altogether.

It's one thing to ban smoking in enclosed areas such as offices, public buildings and restaurants. A mountain of evidence proves the dangers of breathing secondhand smoke indoors.

But when it comes to the dangers of sitting 15 feet from a smoker on a park bench, even the supervisor of Orange County's anti-tobacco program concedes, "There isn't a whole lot of actual science on this." Such a ban smacks not of efforts to protect the public but of a supercilious moral judgment on smokers.

It's open season on smoking these days, with heartening results. Expanded smoking bans, cigarette taxes and anti-tobacco education have helped cut California's smoking and lung cancer rates. Orange County tops the list for living healthfully; a federal survey of 98 metropolitan areas found that 13% of adults here smoke cigarettes, the lowest rate in the nation.

But sometimes you have to distinguish between what's politically popular and fits the mood of the day, and what makes sense and benefits the public.

The Mission Viejo council cut through the anti-smoking rhetoric and made that distinction when it softened the proposed smoking law and took the parks out of it.

What's potentially more dangerous to a person sitting on a park bench? The smoker across the way or the family happily barbecuing with charcoal at one of the park's grills? Or maybe the driver of a diesel car who pulls away from the curb 20 feet away, leaving a smelly plume of exhaust? What about the dust kicked up by the kids playing softball? A study published this year by the respected Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that breathing particles of soot or dust over a long time greatly increases the risk of dying of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. That's more evidence than the anti-smoking activists have.

Then again, under the original Mission Viejo proposal, smokers could legally puff away as they walked down a public sidewalk. Strange; if health is the issue here, it's unlikely that walking behind smokers is less dangerous than sitting across the park from them.

Selective outdoor smoking bans still might make sense, especially in crowded places such as outdoor sporting events, dining patios or in long waiting lines. The issue, though, has to be one of public health, not public disdain for smokers.

Smoking is an activity worth disliking. But banning something simply because we dislike it, without evidence that it's hurting us, is a dangerous step for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

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