Smoke-Free Nation 

Berkeley's new outdoor smoking ban is one of several recent Bay Area laws that mark the beginning of the end to smokers' rights.

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As for police, they plan to largely ignore smokers for the time being. Chief Doug Hambleton said that his department has been doing nothing different and that officers have been "infrequently" issuing tickets to smokers who are less than twenty feet from doorways, or at bus stops, referring to the city's older antismoking laws. As for the new law banning smoking on shopping district sidewalks, the chief said "the plan is to give out lots and lots of warnings."

But if the cops start handing out tickets to enforce the new law, it's going to be expensive for smokers. A violation of the city's no-smoking law is classified as an infraction, and it will cost smokers $100 for the first one. The second will be $200, and then $500 for each additional infraction.

Some smokers' rights advocates say Berkeley's new law goes too far. "This is just another attempt at trampling the rights of smokers, forcing them into back alleys, next to garbage cans, where no one can see or smell them," said Robert Best, the California coordinator of the Smoker's Club. "All they're doing is saying that the discrimination and segregation of smokers is okay. It's getting to the point that the only place you will be able to smoke is in your house with all your windows and doors closed and all the creases covered so that no smoke gets out."


Berkeley's latest no-smoking law came as part of a package that Mayor Bates championed to combat what he calls unruly street behavior. His Public Commons for Everyone Initiative was a set of carrots and sticks to deal with a homeless problem that the mayor believes is far out of proportion to the city's relatively small population.

Vocal critics of the plan said it was designed to sweep homeless people off the streets in Berkeley's shopping districts. Police have been given slightly greater power to deal with people lying down on the sidewalk under the plan. But according to Lauren Lempert, who was hired by the city in August to work on the public commons plan, the smoking ban has been noncontroversial so far. In more than twenty public meetings, where some people raised their voices and accused Lempert and the city of criminalizing the homeless, very few people singled out the smoking ban.

Even the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, which includes bars and restaurants among its members, strongly supports the new restrictions. Chamber CEO Ted Garrett said that given the health concerns regarding secondhand smoke, the Berkeley ban is a positive step for business in the city. When asked whether the ban might upset some employers (such as bar owners whose customers will no longer be able to go outside for a puff), Garrett responded: "Quite honestly, we haven't heard anything negative from businesses."

But at least one critic said police have already used the city's existing smoking rules to unfairly harass homeless people. Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, said he has helped about seven homeless clients fight their smoking infractions in court. Most of these clients, according to Neumann, have gotten off on technicalities like the officer not showing up to court. But he said that the vast majority of homeless people who've been cited for smoking don't get legal help, and they could end up in jail for the night, or over a long weekend, as a result of being ticketed for smoking. This, Neumann explained, is because homeless people often are unable to pay the fines and skip their court dates, and then get arrested on warrants.

It's unclear how many people have been cited by Berkeley police under the city's "quality of life" laws, since those sorts of statistics aren't kept, Hambleton said. Council members asked for the data when considering the public commons plan last year and the numbers are on the way, according to Lempert.

So what about UC Berkeley? With over 24,000 employees, the university is by far the biggest business in town (the second largest is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), but the city's new rules don't apply on campus (or in People's Park). Cal already bans smoking in the vast majority of campus housing and twenty feet from all windows and doors, plus at all outdoor sporting events.

After Alta Bates Medical Center, the fourth largest employer in Berkeley is the city itself. If any of those workers still choose to indulge, they'll presumably have to get in their cars and drive around the block or walk to a nearby a residential neighborhood. The city does offer free help to employees — and anyone else — who want to quit through programs available from its health department. But when asked whether the city plans to accommodate smokers in any way under the new law, Bates staffer Julie Sinai said frankly: "We don't want people to smoke in Berkeley."


But even when some folks choose to take the path to better health, they still need a puff now and then just to get through the day. Michael Clayton takes classes at Berkeley City College and he said his schedule has him in town for ten-hour stretches. He's been trying to quit since January, but a nicotine lozenge his doctor prescribed for him caused him to break out in hives, so the doctor advised him to avoid all similar medical aids for the time being.

Clayton was enjoying the nice weather and his cigarette during a recent break from classes. Like most of the smokers on the streets of Berkeley, he was unaware of new no-smoking rules despite all the posted signs. He said he still planned to smoke when in town. He's been a smoker for more than three decades, and is down to four a day now. But he's sort of ambivalent to the new ban; while very much aware of the negative impacts of smoking on himself and others, he sees little choice for an addict like him but to step out onto the sidewalk as far from the crowds as he can get and take a drag. But he said that he knows the days of public smoking in America are numbered. "Cigarettes and SUVs are on their way out," he said, "and you can quote me on that."

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