Even members of a group as philosophically diverse as the Vancouver City Council share the belief that a ban on smoking in public gathering places is not an infringement on personal liberty but rather a protection of public health. That’s why the council on Monday night unanimously banned smoking in city parks. All councilors must have realized that the unconditional obligation to protect public safety applies in parks as well as in buildings.
Their decision was not only correct; it falls in line with laws adopted by enlightened councils elsewhere. As Andrea Damewood reported in an Oct. 11 Columbian story, Battle Ground, Lacey and Olympia have similar bans in public parks, and New York City enacted a ban earlier this year. CNN reported in May that 105 municipalities have passed various forms of smoking bans in public parks and on public beaches, quoting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Smoking in parks and on beaches not only harms people trying to enjoy these recreational facilities, it also causes a litter problem that harms the beauty of our parks.” But on the more basic issue of public health, CNN cited statistics from the American Lung Association blaming secondhand smoke for causing close to 50,000 deaths annually.
Therein lies the crux of this debate. The public’s right to breathe air free of carcinogens trumps anyone’s personal right to smoke in public. That’s why 63 percent of voters in Washington state (and almost two-thirds of voters in Clark County) in 2006 approved a statewide ban on smoking indoors in public places. It’s also why Oregon voters followed with their own ban three years later.
The personal liberty defense quickly falls flat on a couple of points. First, their right to smoke has not been denied; it’s only been zoned, in a manner of speaking. Smokers remain free to smoke as often as they like in private.
Second, smokers have no right to force the deadly byproduct of their habit on others. Just as it’s against the law to allow raw meat to reach room temperature in the kitchen of a restaurant, it’s illegal to force secondhand smoke upon others in public buildings, and now in Vancouver’s public parks.
Most smokers get it. They readily comply with smoking laws; many of the smokers presumably just to be polite, many others just to follow the law, if begrudgingly.
The debate about smoking will not subside soon. It was seen at the public hearing that preceded Monday’s decision by the city council, and it is seen among online commenters at The Columbian’s website. But there should be no debate about public health. It is one of the most basic functions of government. And that fundamental belief should guide all of us beyond the flurry of “yeah, but” and “what if” complaints. Nit-picking good laws will never justify endangering public health.
The proverbial slippery slope often is cited, as in: What subsequent regulations should we also fear? But the realist sees no slope, slippery or otherwise. It is a level plane that should be easily recognized: the people’s right to breathe air free of secondhand tobacco fumes.
There rises now the question of whether Clark County commissioners should follow suit with a similar ban on smoking in county parks. If they recognize the pre-eminence of public health, they will have no difficulty adopting such a ban. We wait to see if the county commissioners have the courage reflected in the unanimous decision by Vancouver’s city councilors.