Public Comment

Going Back in Time with the Berkeley City Council

C. Denney
Friday May 05, 2017 - 02:27:00 PM

Smoking at a bus stop in Berkeley became illegal in 2004. Smoking in a commercial area in Berkeley, an area with stores and shops, became illegal in 2008. Using e-cigarettes in those places became illegal in Berkeley in 2014. And the people who know this are a rarified group which wouldn't fit into a canoe. 

The law has its majesty. But a law which consistently changes, as Berkeley's smoking regulations have, requires clarification and signage to have any public health impact. Anyone walking through Berkeley will be met with any number of contradictory signs: you are prohibited from smoking in the commercial area, but apparently within your rights to smoke within twenty, or sometimes twenty-five feet, or sometimes fifty feet from a doorway depending on what era of signage one encounters. 

Berkeley's grade from the American Lung Association got better once it finally addressed the enormous ratio of people getting consistently exposed in their own homes from smoking neighbors. But it's about to get worse. The Downtown Berkeley Association, working on the advice of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC), is about to situate ashtrays downtown in currently smokefree areas prone to cigarette litter out of a seemingly benign concern about toxic cigarette butts in the waste stream. 

Which is important. Here's to having healthy ocean wildlife. No smoker should blithely toss cigarettes into the gutter, which poisons wildlife downstream. This pilot project is at least well intended. But since only CEAC saw this proposal, very few who work in public health saw it. And if they had, they would have sent up an alarm which any smoker can clarify: ashtrays are an international signal of a smoke-friendly area.  

If you travel, and your restaurant has ashtrays, you know you can smoke there. It may not be good for you, or for the restaurant staff, but you know it is permissible. If there's an ashtray on the sidewalk in front of the business or restaurant the assumption is the same. 

Berkeley chose, at a certain point, not to keep up with appropriate signage for its changing regulations. Businesses who have windows next to commercial district sidewalks were sent obligatory signage in 2008 after passage of the commercial district smoking regulations, and while not all of them complied, a little follow-up from the city meant that most commercial sidewalks had clear signage in every store window clarifying policy. This was valuable both for helping clarify the law to smokers, most of whom have no interest in bothering people or getting a ticket, and also improving public health. 

Those signs faded with time, and as those businesses turned over nobody from the city's once well-funded Public Health Department followed up with fresh information and signage, such that the only visible signs in some areas of the city are technically inaccurate. Pity the poor smokers, most of whom only wish to know where in heaven's name they can enjoy a cigarette, trying to figure out what the rules are today.  

The cigarette receptacle pilot project is the perfect way to amplify this confusion. Instead of a very modest amount of enforcement, the receptacles will create the impression that our smokefree areas have even more complex sets of exemptions than are currently apparent as a consequence of the confusing signage, the changing regulations, and the near complete lack of enforcement of a law which has life or death consequences for the public. 

Please, Berkeley City Council and relevant commissions - which would be all of them - revisit this pilot project before more people are exposed to something of which there is no safe dose. Enough of us already have difficulty doing errands without getting a serious, and avoidable dose of toxic exposure to secondhand smoke. We have the right to enjoy our city without toxic assault, and need to take common sense approaches to downstream waste issues, like ticketing violations. Please don't sacrifice the public's health unnecessarily just to look green.