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Let local governments clear the air

On the heels of Lafayette’s city-parish council’s desire to ban smoking practically everywhere it can given state law, Shreveport’s city council now is considering the same thing. This is a tough regulatory issue because it puts different groups’ rights in conflict: the right of people to burn and inhale cigarettes in public vs. others whose compromised breathing is exponentially increased in difficulty by smoke and those who perhaps only get irritated by it.

Making the move more interesting, Louisiana’s state law regarding smoking and its exemptions essentially allows any public venue where more than half of its gross revenues come from alcohol and/or are licensed for gambling not to have to create nonsmoking facilities. It also means that hotels cannot have all nonsmoking rooms and tobacconists also are exempt. In any event, even if separate facilities get created, even with technology designed to try to clear air, breathing-compromised individuals still can suffer rapid, debilitating respiratory problems with just a trace of tobacco smoke.

In short, the state does not permit local governments, none of which to date have tried to strengthen local ordinances beyond the state’s version, to force prohibition of smoking in places where traditionally it has been part of the “ambience,” or where a person is likely to reside (hotel room or private residence), or where it is integral to business (tobacconists). It does prohibit smoking in what otherwise are generally defined as “public places.” It also allows owners optionally to go further than state law; it just prohibits local governments from forcing them to do so.

What appears most contentious is both the Lafayette and Shreveport versions want to extend a 25-foot halo of sorts emanating from nonsmoking areas which would make those areas practically nonsmoking. While this may be of great benefit to the breathing-compromised, it also may run afoul of state law.

Naturally, a ban represents an intrusion on those who want to smoke. But at the same time, their desire to smoke represents an intrusion on others with potential immediate and severe negative health effects. This makes government regulation in this area appropriate, since one group’s liberty will face curtailment regardless.

The question then becomes whether the 25-foot halo would violate the law. The answer is, if it does, it shouldn’t. Many times I personally have witnessed smokers congregated right outside the doors of hospitals and clinics through which breathing-compromised individuals pass routinely which would cause them distress on the way for treatment for that very ailment. If the point of the law is to allow these people to lead normal lives (as normal as one can with their conditions) in the conduct of their business as citizens – access to health care, visiting to government offices etc. – then the 25-foot halo should be permitted.

That doesn’t mean it should apply to places like bars, restaurants, casinos, hotel rooms, and tobacconists. Engaging with these is not a necessary part of a person’s life. (In any event, the private sector seems quite capable of producing some restaurants, even a few bars, that voluntarily make themselves smoke free.)

Cities like Lafayette and Shreveport who want to do this should go for it. And if the ordinance gets challeneged and the judiciary does not uphold it, then simple majorities in the Legislature ought to be able to amend the law to allow for the halo. Surely smokers, whose chose to hook themselves to tobacco and can choose to quit at any time, can see how their behavior badly affects some people’s health. Walking over eight yards from a nonsmoking facility in order to light up will be good exercise to build up their damaged respiratory capacity, and, if raining, a nice stroll under and umbrella won’t do them any harm. And if that’s too much trouble, they can always quit smoking.

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