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Lighten up

Anti-smoking measures, no matter how well intentioned, cross the line when they invade our living rooms.

January 30, 2007

IT WAS ONLY a year ago that the city of Calabasas broke brave new ground in anti-smoking nuttiness by passing a ban on lighting up in any public outdoor space. Sure, we thought at the time, this is the country's most tobacco-averse state, but what's next? No smoking in your own living room?

Exactly.

Belmont, a Bay Area suburb southeast of San Francisco, may soon pass a smoking ban so overreaching it would make Calabasas look like flavor country. At the request of an elderly man who complained about smokers puffing away in his apartment complex, the City Council voted late last year to consider prohibiting people from lighting up even in their own apartments and condos -- everywhere except in detached single-family homes and yards.

Belmont hasn't yet unveiled its proposed ordinance, and the City Council isn't expected to vote any time soon. But it's chilling -- if predictable -- that a local government would even contemplate extending its hand into someone's own home to control a legal behavior.

Apartment dwellers don't own their units and often have to accept someone else's rules. But that person is usually their landlord. Apartment complexes, although regulated for such things as rental discrimination, safety and sometimes prices, are private property, not public spaces under the control of city government. Landlords are already free to prohibit smoking anywhere on their property, and many choose to do just that.

Belmont shouldn't force their hand either way. Such a ban would amount to criminalizing a bad habit practiced by a dwindling minority of the population if they live in a multi-unit property but not if they live in a house.

In 1995, California became the first state to ban smoking in most indoor workplaces. Since then, we have enjoyed our share of positive consequences, including a more thorough discussion of the dangers of secondhand smoke and a sharp reduction in the percentage of adults who light up, from nearly 23% in 1988 to less than 16% in 2005.

It's tempting for California lawmakers to keep the state at the forefront of curbing tobacco addiction. But banning a legal behavior in someone's own home is a bridge that shouldn't be crossed, no matter how unpopular -- or unhealthy -- the habit may be.

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