Opinion Columns & Blogs

Antismoking laws meant to save lives

The Mixture No. 79 tobacco my dad packed into his pipe is one of my earliest childhood memories. The aroma filled our home whenever he felt the urge to strike his match and take a few puffs, just as I imagined Sherlock Holmes would have done.

Dad, now 78, grew up in Kentucky, known for its tobacco culture, and started smoking cigarettes in the Army in 1951. He gave up his last pack after my brother was born in 1960 and stopped smoking a pipe 20 years later, not because smoking was bad for his health and the health of those around him, he recalled. Rather, it was because he no longer enjoyed the routine. He quit cold turkey.

“It’s all in your mind,” he said of his decision to kick the habit. “I’ve never had a pipe in my mouth since.”

Given my father’s smoking background, and the fact that he survived cancer of the salivary gland, and that a brother died of lung cancer, I thought I’d ask him what he thought of the no- smoking ordinance in San Luis Obispo, a step for which city officials should get a round of applause.

The ordinance, which relies heavily on warnings and citations for offenders as well as self-enforcement, prohibits smoking everywhere in the city, with a few exceptions. The state of Michigan, where my parents live, recently implemented a smoke-free law, prohibiting smoking in most public places.

As I expected, dad was torn.

He no longer smokes, and therefore, does not want to breathe smoke-filled air. Yet, he believes that government can intervene too much in regulating the behavior of its citizens.

I imagine that some San Luis Obispo city residents feel this way about the new ordinance; that it’s an assault on their personal liberty, an erosion of freedom to do as they please where they please.

How far will it go, and what will it be next? they might ask. Will we one day have police stopping people on the street if they’re caught eating bacon double cheeseburgers?

But the spirit behind it is not to tell people they cannot smoke. It’s designed to stop smokers from lighting up in places where they would expose people to dangerous second-hand smoke, said Brigitte Elke, principal administrative analyst for the city. The ordinance, an expansion of an existing 1990 ordinance that banned smoking from all indoor places open to the public, was prompted by complaints from citizens who were tired of smokers hanging out in front of businesses, puffing away, she said.

Kathleen Karle, program manager of the county’s health agency, said she’s familiar with the stance my dad and others have taken with regard to no-smoking laws. Her response, she said, has always been that government steps in when it needs to.

“The example I give in San Luis Obispo is that it became one of the first communities to fluoridate its water supply in the 1950s,” she said.

Think about it. Over the years, how many other major public health efforts have helped to keep individuals safe? From vaccines for school-age children and bicycle helmet use, to no hand-held cell phone and texting-while-driving laws, these are all regulations that help protect the health and welfare of our citizens.

Looking back, no one in our home gave serious thought to how we might be harmed by second-hand smoke. When dad quit, we knew it was a good thing, but no one (except maybe for me) made a big deal about it.

I wonder, though, how we all might have benefited if he had stopped sooner, if the city of Detroit had adopted a similar ordinance?

It’s too soon to tell how well the SLO ordinance is working (so far, city officials report no complaints about the law). But the evidence about the hazards of smoking and second-hand smoke is overwhelming.

Here’s hoping that other communities here and across the United States soon follow the city’s lead.