Knowing what works

Carol Denney
Tuesday June 06, 2017 - 11:07:00 AM

The chair of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC), Michael Goldhaber, seemed annoyed recently when I halted the plan to place cigarette butt receptacles in the smokefree area downtown after its first reading. "Have you seen cigarette butts downtown?" he asked me sternly when I visited the commission. I thought his combination of ignorance and rudeness would have been too humiliating for him to bear if accurately reported, so I wrote a humorous piece instead for the satirical Pepper Spray Times now in its twenty-sixth year of continuous publication. He is now threatening to sue me, claiming among other things that the piece is "not particularly funny." He's right about one thing - his threat is much funnier than the original piece. 

The commission's intention, protecting the bay from discarded butts, is laudable. But Save the Bay, which originated the effort, was horrified to learn CEAC had chosen smokefree areas for its butt receptacles, and supports the compromise legislation I wrote placing them outside the smokefree zone. Especially in the absence of signage, ashtrays tend to send a "smoking okay here" message no matter what signage is nearby. The first thing a restaurant does when it goes smokefree is remove the ashtrays for reasons which most people find obvious. And it is, after all, a life or death matter -- there's no safe dose of secondhand smoke. 

I could have loaded the CEAC meeting room with cancer survivors, nursing mothers with kids in strollers, or anybody who cares about the cardiovascular and pulmonary effects of secondhand smoke. One businessman downtown begged me to intervene and keep receptacles away from his own business frontage, knowing what would result. But I came alone to CEAC because I assumed there would be a few people in the room with some common sense about the best way to address the few smokers who don't comply with city restrictions. The project had not just passed CEAC and the Berkeley City Council with only Councilmember Worthington's objection and mine, but some council representatives had had no idea smokefree areas were being considered as appropriate places for ashtrays. No public health-related commissions were included in the discussion, nor was Berkeley's own Public Health Department, which used words like "broadsided" and "sandbagged" to describe their complete exclusion from any policy discussion. 

This matters. Suing someone who makes fun of the idiocy of putting ashtrays in a smokefree area won't accomplish anything. But changing smokers' behavior is easy, and people in public health know it. Smokers don't need to quit or walk far to comply with restrictions. Speaking up, letting smokers know about the regulations and the closest place to legally smoke, a little patience, and consistency is what it takes. Communication, signage, and a little enforcement works - most people don't want an expensive ticket. Even in the smokiest states in the nation smokers are outnumbered, and most want to cut down or quit. In Alameda County they're down to about 12%, and many of them consider themselves "social smokers" who indulge - or not - in some contexts but not others. Most of them support smoking restrictions and just have no idea where to go to legally enjoy a cigarette. The City of Berkeley quit its initial effort to have consistent outreach, education, and signage a very few years after 2008's commercial districts law, and it wouldn't take much to step up its efforts, efforts the public health voice knows well. 

Smokers know they can restrict their own behavior, and have done it all of their smoking lives. It's usually non-smokers who see them as helplessly in thrall to an addiction, despite the fact that the cultural and legal shift which moved smoking out of bars, restaurants, hospitals, libraries, etc. just wasn't that hard to accomplish. The Tobacco Industry and the business community said the sky would fall. But it didn't - disease rates did. 

In Paris, in Spain, in Irish bars, in English pubs, in New Orleans, all the places it was supposed to be impossible, consistent communication, consistent signage, consistent enforcement works. And the easiest place to change is a school setting, where the school administration has their students tightly held under both a registration contract and often a code of conduct. Scofflaws who find themselves unable to attend class until they've paid expensive tickets quickly change their behavior, and young smokers are the most receptive to environmental issues. 

Our environmental goals never need to be at war with our public health goals. In fact they go hand in hand. CEAC's current "Cigarette Butt Receptacle Pilot Project"-- amended to place receptacles outside the smokefree areas-- sounds beneficial, and will certainly stop some cigarette butts from reaching the bay. But they're still a measure of failure, not success, and no matter where they are placed they create a serious hazard for people nearby. Starting a "pilot project" with ashtrays, instead of education, signage, and enforcement, is nothing but a pointless, full surrender. 

When CEAC and the City of Berkeley want to get serious about being more effective, they will do what they have avoided doing so far: include public health advocates' voices and educate people about their effect on other people's health and the health of the bay. The public health advocates who have radically changed the world despite tremendous odds and Big Tobacco (which loves ashtrays), stand ready to help.