Portland’s smoking ban is not crazy enough

On Jan. 8, the Portland City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee took action that should shock anyone who cherishes the freedom our country was founded to protect. By a unanimous vote with no public opposition, the committee endorsed a new law to criminalize smoking in more than two dozen public parks and squares throughout the city. If passed by the full council next month, the new edict will add these areas to the 2008 list of 50 city-owned athletic fields and playgrounds where smoking tobacco is already a criminal offense punishable by a $50 fine.

Among the downtown gathering places on the expanded list are Monument Square, Longfellow Square, Congress Square, Tommy’s Park, Post Office Park, Lincoln Park and the Eastern and Western Promenades. Off-peninsula areas include Deering Oaks, Payson Park, Baxter Woods and Riverton Park. (At this week’s meeting, the city’s legal department also confirmed that, contrary to an assumption held for the past five years, the city-owned Riverside Golf Course is an “athletic facility” where police should also be patrolling for smokers — perhaps working undercover as “golfers.”)

You may have noted that I mentioned the “freedom” our country holds dear, not “freedoms.” That’s because our enlightened modern political leaders and judges have consistently affirmed that, though the supernatural being who created humankind endowed us with three unalienable rights, the right to “life” trumps the rights to “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” every time, even when the latter two are combined in the act of enjoying a smoke (which our ignorant founding fathers did all the time, even indoors).

After all, if you don’t have life, then the other two rights aren’t much use to you. And the scientific evidence is clear and irrefutable: Stray wafts of secondhand smoke can kill people almost as surely as stray bullets. In 2010, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin released a report that states there is “no risk-free level of exposure” to tobacco smoke. “Inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke can also damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer,” Dr. Benjamin declared.

Doctor, admiral, genius: U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. photo courtesy surgeongeneral.gov

Scoffers and doubters should note that Benjamin is not only a surgeon and a general but also a vice admiral who commands a force of 6,500 “uniformed public health officers” (so described on surgeongeneral.gov) stationed around the globe to fight vices like smoking. She wears a very impressive coat with numerous medals and gold sleeve-rings on it, and somebody once gave her an award for being a “genius.” So put that in your pipe and … well, never mind.

What’s shocking about the committee’s vote is that it does so little to protect our most precious freedom. For example, what’s the point of legally securing the air that happens to be blowing in Monument Square during any given minute when one can be exposed to deadly puffs on all the sidewalks that lead to the square?

The city’s 2008 law not only protected playing fields, trails and playgrounds, but it imposed a 20-foot smoke-free buffer zone around all those places, 24/7/365. The law for parks and squares does not include a buffer, so someone can stand on the Congress Street sidewalk that runs along Monument Square and huff butts all day long. If there’s a southeasterly breeze, hundreds of innocent bystanders could be (indirectly) slain.

That’s only one of many gaping loopholes in this lifesaving law. When Portland’s first outdoor smoking ban passed five years ago, I wrote an open letter to city officials alerting them to the dangers of an even deadlier scourge: secondhand snot. As I pointed out at the time, state officials wisely require sneeze-guards on salad bars.

“If chickpeas and bacon bits deserve legal protection from exposure to secondhand snot, why not people?” I wrote.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

And what about motor-vehicle exhaust? When I walk around downtown, I inhale a heck of a lot more of that than secondhand smoke. Is there a “risk-free level of exposure” to tailpipe emissions? I don’t think so.

In the interests of fairness and public health, the police shouldn’t just be targeting the teenagers, hipsters, homeless people and retirees who smoke in public squares. All smokers, drivers and sneezers who do not use handkerchiefs should be banned, fined and otherwise banished from our healthy community.

My only fear is that Portland’s police force isn’t large enough to tackle the task. We need some of Dr. General Admiral Benjamin’s federal vice troops on the streets. I urge President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and other committed foes of tobacco to send us the help we so desperately need.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.