Public Comment

Tobacco Industry: ‘Give me your homeless, your poor…’

By Carol Denney
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 09:04:00 AM

When I first saw Berkeley’s new proposal for smoking restrictions in multi-unit housing, I couldn’t believe the loopholes. It exempts condos and tenant-in-common properties. It offers opt-out options for those who wish to continue smoking in their units. It refuses to identify secondhand smoke, which kills over 50,000 nonsmokers a year, as a nuisance, and suggests smoking sections, which most people know are a joke if the goal is clean air. It is a tobacco industry’s dream. 

I wondered where the weaknesses had come from and was told that the 10 percent smoking sections were necessary to address social justice needs. 

Well, I like social justice! I read through several years of committee meeting minutes and saw that the proposal’s weaknesses were based on several myths: 

• a concern that there would be a rash of evictions in the wake of smoking restrictions, even though no evidence of this exists; 

• a concern that formerly homeless people would be barred from transitional housing because they smoked, even though smokefree housing only means smokers step outside to smoke, something all smokers in California do anyway in workplaces, restaurants, etc.; 

• a concern that formerly homeless smokers with mental disabilities will be somehow less able to step outside to smoke, so that “smoking” units need to be set aside for them, even though there is no evidence of this—on the contrary, studies show that people with mental disabilities are as capable of adjusting to smoking restrictions as anybody else. 

It’s true that homeless people have a high rate of smoking, but it is no accident. The tobacco industry targets homeless and mentally disabled people the same way it targets other marginalized groups by donating free cigarettes to shelters and psychiatric clinics and encouraging the clinics and transitional housing groups to oppose smoking restrictions. It targets the service providers as well, many of whom are formerly homeless, in the hope that they will help the tobacco industry position itself in the public eye as compassionate, generous, and kind. 

The difference is that when the tobacco industry targets the gay community or the African-American community, people jump up and down and object. Targeting homeless and mentally disabled people in this way gets little such reaction—on the contrary, tobacco industry rhetoric and mythology is prevalent in the discussions of this embarrassing proposal, which sidesteps the opportunity to protect countless lungs and lives. 

A minority of 450 estimated formerly homeless mentally disabled smokers are being scapegoated to set up smoking sections in nearly seven times more housing than is needed to specifically house them, assuming for argument’s sake that they truly could not step outside, saddling everyone else in town with smoking sections which are being abandoned nationwide as a pointless joke. 

Berkeley deserves to lose its leadership role in public health policy if it thinks one can put a smoking section in a room, a theater, or multi-unit housing, and still call it “smokefree.” Ninety percent smokefree is a contradiction in terms. 

It’s tragic to lay a foundation for young children to continue to be exposed daily to deadly second- and third-hand smoke because of Berkeley’s misguided, tobacco industry-hatched mythology about “social justice.” 

The tobacco industry once created a special brand of cigarettes targeting homeless and mentally disabled people. Perhaps it’s time to launch a special Berkeley brand called “Irony.” 


Carol Denney is a Berkeley resident.