Public Comment

Stonefire Lights Up; Let's Quit the Smokefree Guessing Game

Carol Denney
Friday July 07, 2017 - 05:26:00 PM

Stonefire Building construction workers come from all over the Bay Area, and those who smoke aren't allowed to do so on the construction site according to JR Madsen, the Assistant Project Superintendent for Brown Construction. "Our worksites don't allow smoking," stated Madsen, who said aside from the workplace health issues there were obvious safety issues with tossed cigarette butts and flammable construction materials. 

Nearby businesses and residents grumbled about construction workers smoking on nearby supposedly smokefree sidewalks. They called the police, but with no results.[1] Madsen, upon being informed about the smokefree commercial district law, did what people would logically do: he checked with his city inspector, who visited the site regularly. And City Inspector Brad Rudolph told him that the Stonefire site was not in the smokefree area. He was wrong, of course, but Madsen and his workers were caught in the middle. 

Hearing this, I asked if Madsen was willing to walk down to City Hall and get the scoop on smokefree regulations. He said sure. Our representative at the Community Health and City Services Department confirmed the smokefree law, but added that one could ignore the smokefree law if one was "in transit." He was wrong, of course, and I was aghast, but not surprised. This "in transit" loophole is no part of Berkeley law; imagine how much good a smokefree area would do if all the people passing through could smoke as they went by. I told him he was mistaken, and to double-check the law, but it left me realizing our collective confusion about smokefree regulations goes all the way up the chain. 


Let's be smart. Since construction sites within smokefree areas are similarly likely to have workers from out of town, let's have permits include information that the sites and the surrounding areas are smokefree and most importantly, let's inform the crew about the nearest place to legally smoke. The guessing game we're currently employing is silly. Madsen asked about the absence of signs, and I told him the program we had back in 2008 after the ordinance's passage ten years ago when all commercial district front windows were mandated to have clear, colorful signs provided by the city affixed to the inside of commercial storefronts where they couldn't be vandalized. 


It does no good to have a smokefree law that few people know about, and that even the smaller ratio of city officials don't understand. If the city of Berkeley has money to put up big banners from the light poles of people playing the saxophone and drinking coffee to try making the downtown look more lively, it has money to replenish the discreet but crucial smokefree signage which will save lives if people actually do visit downtown. It is the least the city can do to honor the hard work of the health advocates who fought for our "A" report card from the American Lung Association, which freely admits compliance is not part of its city evaluation, although some day it may be. Right now that is our job as a community. 


Sensible people, including Madsen, are uneasy at the idea of being, as Madsen put it, "the smoking police." But that isn't really how one creates compliance. Best practices for compliance begin with information, outreach, and signage. Clear, concise signs, window by window in commercial districts storefronts, had a profound effect ten years ago on public understanding and behavior. Outreach teams spoke personally to business owners to enlist them in the effort to educate their customers, which played a crucial role. 


The city is letting its commitment to public health drift into oblivion now that most of the signs are faded or gone, and we are mistaken if we blame those who have no idea what our regulations are in the first place. Let's quit the guessing game, and make sure people have at least a chance to work together cooperatively to make our commercial districts safe to enjoy. It's a little silly not to include smokefree air as part of our goal of having green construction goals. And one other thing: please, somebody, clue in City Inspector Brad Rudolph.  



[1] If you call the Police Department to report even repeated smoking in a smokefree area, you'll be asked to describe a specific smoker; what they're wearing, their height, weight, race, etc., so that the officer who eventually shows up an hour later, when the cigarette is out and the smoker is long gone, can identify them correctly.