Saturday, April 26, 2014

San Francisco anti-smoking law and sidewalks

Waiting in line last night on the sidewalk for the Bicycle Film Festival, people tightly packed along the building waiting for the doors to open, a chatty fellow behind me lit up a cigarette.

Cigarette smoke is something I'm rarely exposed to for more than a few seconds, and despite the steady wind, the smell of the fumes was physically sickening, not to menton a tangible health risk. In fact, just typing this the next morning reminds me of the queasy feeling in my stomach as I tried my best to maximize my distance from him without losing my place in my line.

What to do? Politely ask him, as a favor, to stop? Inform him that such behavior isn't acceptable (that option probably doesn't work so well, in my experience). I probably should have done the former. But instead I waited it out, resolute that if he tried another, I'd speak up. Fortunately one was enough for him.

San Francisco likes to vigorously pat itself on the back for being anti-smoking, and indeed in indoor areas smoking is highly regulated. And in outdoor parks and outdoor eating areas, smoking is generally restricted, although the compliance with the park part of that can be quite poor. But the city remains under the myth that on crowded public sidewalks, second-hand smoke is magically swept away by the zephyr winds.

On sidewalks, waiting for a traffic signal, waiting in line, or even just walking along, smoking is extremely disrespectful to those around you. Sure, an almost century of film has, with the financial influence of tobacco companies, promoted the notion that it is a strictly personal, largely positive, behavior. But there I was, feeling sick to my stomach, uncomfortable creating a scene with a guy whom I didn't know and whose stability I couldn't trust. Sure, I could have said something, as I noted, but this is California where the direct approach must be handled with more care than in the Northeast, where I grew up.

The smoking ordinance is here. The only mention of sidewalks, as you can see, is if the sidewalk is within 15 feet of a building, unless it is at a curb, in which case it's okay. Presumably this is to allow pedestrian smokers to continue on their way, unimpeded by the law, by walking near curbs.

But this prioritizes the smoker's perceived needs over the health and well-being of others. Obviously smoking is a voluntary activity, done for self-destructive purpose to the detriment of others nearby. There is simply no reason for the city to preserve a "right" to practice it in crowded public areas, including sidewalks whether near curbs or not.

I experienced this again, the day before, as I went for an evening run and had to pass through the fumigated sphere surrounding each of a substantial number of pedestrian smokers. I'm well practiced in this: observe the characteristic hand-position, spot the white butt, inhale deeply, then 5 full strides on a slow exhale, testing the air tentatively once the breath is gone.

I've written Supervisor Malia Cohen and asked her to support legislation extending the anti-smoking ordinance to ban smoking on public sidewalks. Rationally, it's consistent with the restriction on smoking in parks. And it will make the city a more pleasant, healthier place to be for the majority who don't share this deadly addiction. I got no response. This position is, unfortunately, still viewed as extreme in a city where a surprisingly large fraction of residents across the age and economic spectrum fall victim to big tobacco's lure.

3 comments:

Nem said...

I feel exactly the same as you! Constantly doing the "observe smoker walking ahead of me, hold breath, try to rush by" routine. I have asthma that is triggered by all the secondhand smoke in SF. I take an expensive daily medication that I wouldn't need if it weren't for the secondhand smoke exposure I am forced to experience just to get to work.

I am wondering if there is any way to address this to try to affect city policies? Is contacting my supervisor the only way? Is there any kind of anti-smoking movement brewing in San Francisco that might result in a ban such as Walnut Creek's?

djconnel said...

Thanks for the comment! I'm in Basel Switzerland at the moment and it's worse here -- smoking is relatively common.

Perhaps a change.org petition would be a place to start.

Tom said...

Smoking while waiting in line for a movie is actually prohibited. Quoting the ordinance that you linked to:

"(d) Smoking is prohibited in service waiting areas... such as ATMs, bank teller windows, telephones, ticket lines, movie theater lines, concert lines, athletic event lines, performance event lines and cab stands..."

This doesn't solve the problem of how to confront the inconsiderate smoker, though.