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Smoking enlightenment

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SMOKERS AND THEIR HABIT are especially reviled in California. That makes the job of public officials both easier and harder as they consider how to translate the latest science on the harms of secondhand smoke into ordinances and regulations that protect the public without encouraging a witch hunt.

There is strong evidence that secondhand smoke can cause breast and lung cancer, premature birth and cardiovascular problems. So the California Air Resources Board was right to declare tobacco smoke a “toxic air contaminant.” More cities can now be expected to impose limits on some kinds of outdoor smoking, which was once thought to have little or no effect on bystanders. The devil, as always, is in the details -- or in the smoke, as the case may be.

The air board found that levels of secondhand smoke could rise to significant levels in some outdoor settings. But the situations it monitored -- designated smoking areas where large numbers of smokers congregate -- might represent a higher risk than, say, a single smoker strolling along the street. Another factor to consider is whether bystanders can easily walk away from the smoke, and for how long they are exposed. People at a bus stop, for example, cannot wait 200 feet upwind to avoid smoke. But people leaving a building where smokers congregate outside can simply walk away.

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Regulations call for common sense and fair play -- qualities that blow out the window when it comes to cigarettes. Does it make sense to ban smoking at a park but allow picnickers to light up a campfire?

Calabasas has tried to address the uncertainties by leaving it in the hands of nonsmokers, who can demand that smokers put out their cigarettes -- and can file a complaint with the city if they refuse. This could encourage cigarette vigilantes. And it isn’t pretty to contemplate what could happen when a smoker refuses to give up the personal information needed to file a complaint.

We know secondhand smoke can be dangerous outdoors. But we know relatively little about precisely how hazardous it is in specific circumstances -- how much smoke, for how long and under what circumstances. The state should move swiftly on new public education campaigns and to restrict smoking in the most obviously noxious situations. Beyond that, the task calls for nothing more than good science and good sense.

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