By now, even smokers know that cigarettes are toxic, addictive and just plain evil.
How far city governments should go in telling people when and where they can smoke is, however, a cloudier issue — a balancing act between freedom of choice and public welfare that now also threatens the privacy rights of Burbank condo and apartment dwellers.
A recently adopted extension of the 2007 Secondhand Smoke Ordinance that all but eliminated tobacco use throughout downtown Burbank will, as of May 2011, outlaw smoking on many private patios and balconies.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sympathetic to the rights of nonsmokers to avoid someone else’s toxic habit, and I support most of Burbank’s current and pending tobacco regulations.
Smokers in multi-family dwellings shouldn’t indulge in enclosed common spaces, in children’s play areas or at swimming pools when kids are around.
I can also see the benefit of banning tobacco use in apartments where shared ventilation ducts carry smoke into nonsmoking units, which the new law will do.
But do we really want police officers knocking on doors and entering people’s homes on suspicion of smoking tobacco?
That scenario very well could and probably will happen in Burbank as early as next year, though gray areas pose a challenge in enforcing the smoking ban on apartment balconies.
While the new law’s intent is to allow police to issue a ticket when someone’s smoking affects other people’s enjoyment of their balcony — though torching carbon monoxide-producing charcoal and lighter fluid in a grill is OK — it’s technically not illegal for a person to blow that same amount of smoke out their open window or patio door.
What happens then, and how much time should police spend investigating, where a smoker’s feet were planted at the time of the alleged offense?
When it comes to an officer’s right to enter your home, do changing social perceptions about a nasty habit redefine our notions of the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement?
So far it appears that impacts of second-hand smoke restrictions have matched their intent, though out-of-towners most often pay the price.
Of the 490 citations issued for smoking in 2009, and the 433 issued the first nine months of this year, 394 and 323, respectively — roughly 78% — went to non-residents, said Burbank police Sgt. Robert Quesada.
Nearly all occurred in the downtown area, he said, identifying only one incident relating to current multifamily unit restrictions and only one leading to greater charges, and that for illegal street sale of tobacco.
At $211, these tickets aren’t cheap. But most of that assessment goes to the courts, the city recovering only 14% of the baseline $35 fee ($4.90), said Assistant City Atty. Joe McDougal.
Nor is ticketing a consistent process.
With City Hall laudably focused on education as the first step toward compliance, Quesada says officers use their own discretion about offering warnings to first-time offenders, same as for vehicle moving violations.
So while you may get a break after lighting up a cigarette downtown, it’s just as easy as ever to purchase this harmful product there.
And that smells of something worse than smoke: Hypocrisy.
It isn’t right for city officials to collect sales tax revenue from cigarettes sold in parts of town where they don’t allow people to use them, and elsewhere in the city, notice of smoking restrictions should be provided at point of sale.
Sure, you can’t drink on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store, but that’s a faulty analogy until knowledge of outdoor smoking restrictions permeates our culture as deeply as those regarding alcohol.
If we’re going to wade into murky waters of regulating smoking in and around people’s homes, the city should at least start with its feet planted on the highest moral ground.
JOE PIASECKI is an Annenberg Fellow with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a contributing editor for the Pasadena Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.