(3/6/09) Editorial – With a Little Consideration and Civility Toward Each Other and Respect for Each Other’s Rights, Sierra Madre Can Handle This Smoking Issue Without Having to Legislate It

First, let me say that I’m writing this editorial as a 15-year resident of Sierra Madre and publisher of SierraMadreNews.Net.  The opinions you will read here are my opinions, and they are not intended to be representative of the Chamber of Commerce, its Board of Directors, or its members. Obviously, as president of the Chamber, I am going to be in contact with Chamber members and the Board, and their comments and opinions and my discussions with them may shape my opinions. But what you are reading here is not written on behalf of the Chamber, nor does it represent a position being taken by the Chamber. The Chamber has not taken a position on this issue, despite what you may read elsewhere. The Chamber has polled downtown businesses that would be affected, and will present a report to the City with its findings. Let me also state here that I am a non-smoker, though a couple times a year on a special occasion I may enjoy a cigar in the evening, always outside.

When I first heard about the proposed smoking restrictions for outside dining areas in Sierra Madre, my first reaction was that as President of the Chamber, it is my job to bring customers into Sierra Madre businesses, not restrict them. I was flat out against it. However, I’m only one person in an organization with well over one hundred members, and I recognized that my opinion was my opinion only, and that more input was needed. I did, however, join the Facebook group “Stop the Sierra Madre Smoking Ban.”

I was contacted by City Manager Elaine Aguilar to see if the Chamber could help facilitate a meeting with restaurant owners that would be affected by the restrictions so that their input could be solicited and made a part of the staff report to the City Council. I contacted every restaurant business, most by e-mail, and some by phone, leaving messages for a couple of them that weren’t in when I called.

Over the next couple days, I did a little research, and discovered there are reports out there that state that some cities that had enacted bans had not reflected a decrease in business due to the ban. There are, I believe, obvious health issues involved here, as well, though I’ll discuss that a little later. And I also was considering the possibility that businesses might see an increase in non-smoking customers that have stayed away when smoking was allowed, maybe enough to offset the smoking customers they might lose. So as I went into the meeting with the restaurant owners, I was definitely re-thinking my original reaction, and was not really sure as I entered the meeting whether I was for or against the restriction.

First of all, let’s agree on something, this is not a ban. It’s a restriction. It restricts the rights of smokers to enjoy a cigarette, pipe or cigar when they are in an outdoor dining area. Their right to smoke at indoor dining areas was taken away in the 1990s, I believe in 1994, by statewide legislation that left every restaurant business in the state on a level playing field. You couldn’t go to any restaurant in the state and smoke indoors. This local ordinance, however, puts the Sierra Madre restaurant industry in a position where it could lose customers to other local cities that don’t have similar restrictions. I have to wonder if the restaurant owners wouldn’t be within their rights, if the ordinance is approved, to file a class action lawsuit on the basis of discrimination against their particular industry. They might find support from restaurant associations with deeper pockets, and then the City would find itself in the position of defending itself in an expensive lawsuit. Don’t think the City can really afford that, so I’m not sure if Council members vote for this that they are truly considering what’s in the best interests of the City.

The proposed city ordinance also, however, and I think this is somewhat overlooked, restricts the rights of a business/property owner to determine what he/she will and will not allow to happen on their own property, in their own business. And in some cases, that is done without representation. Some business/property owners that will be affected by this ordinance do not live in town, so they do not even have the option of voting for or against the Council representatives that are proposing to enact this law.

According to City Manager Aguilar, members of the City Council received about a dozen complaints during the holidays regarding smoking in the downtown dining areas. Most of the complaints were from parents that didn’t like exposing their children to the smoke in the dining areas. Mayor Zimmerman took the complaints to heart, and agendized the issue for the City Council to consider. It is my understanding that at that Council meeting, about a dozen people spoke on the issue, with a ratio of about three to one opposing the restriction. One thing that amazes me about this whole thing, is that it all started because of about a dozen letters. We are a town with a population of around eleven thousand people. We have thousands of people that visit our downtown district on a monthly basis. All of these thousands of people are going to have to have their behavior legislated because of a dozen complaints? And, the City possibly becoming involved in expensive litigation over a dozen complaints? And it’s quite possible that some of those complaints came from the same people complaining more than once.

Despite the public comment opposing the restrictions, Council voted 4 – 0 to continue the discussion, and requested a draft ordinance be brought back at the March 10th meeting (since postponed till the meeting of the 24th of March), with instructions to solicit input from the business owners that would be affected. Thus, the Chamber was contacted and the meeting with restaurant owners was arranged.

But the fact of the matter is that it is not just the restaurant owners that will be affected by the restrictions, all the downtown businesses will be. If smokers are prohibited from lighting up in the outside dining areas, it’s not going to stop them from smoking. It’s just going to change where they can do it. We’re not eliminating the health issue, just moving it next door. Dining areas that now have ashtrays will no longer have them. So a smoker will get up from the dining area, move next door or down the street, in front of a retail establishment, enjoy their cigarette, and then have no place to put it out, except the sidewalk or the street. So now, the non-restaurant businesses, particularly those closest to restaurants with outside dining, are going to find that their customers are going to have to walk through the smokers to get into their establishments (which already happens, to some extent, as business employees that smoke are required to go outside to light up). And if you figure that some smokers will go to the left of the dining area, and some will go the right, you now have two businesses with folks standing and smoking on the sidewalk that are being effected, not just the one dining establishment. And as I said, our sidewalks and streets will now be littered with all the cigarette butts that are now being put out in ashtrays. I have been told by City staff that the cost of cleaning up this litter can be quite prohibitive, so that’s another thing to consider. The City is broke, and now we are going to increase its maintenance expenses during an economic downturn?

Arcadia and Monrovia do not have smoking bans, despite, due to higher populations and busier business districts, far more smokers than Sierra Madre has. Is our business district, in this poor economy, healthy enough to take the financial hit it will almost undoubtedly take if a significant portion of its already limited customer base decides that we’ve legislated them to a point where they’d rather do business in other cities?

As to the health issue, when the state law was passed banning indoor smoking, it was done to protect folks (restaurant workers in particular) who worked indoors where a procession of people smoked and the workers were exposed to constant inhalation of carcinogens. I am not aware of any studies that state that people sitting at tables that are usually several feet from each other at occasional visits to places where smoking is allowed outdoors have suffered health-wise for having done so. Doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, just means I haven’t seen them. But the fact of the matter is, people smoke in front of other businesses, too, and that will happen even more so if a dining area restriction goes into effect. So what’s next, in a year, people unhappy about the increased smoking outside non-dining areas complain, and a new ordinance is proposed to ban smoking inside or out in the entire downtown area? And why stop there? Parents strolling their children through their neighborhood certainly pass neighbors in their yard enjoying a cigarette, or working in their garden, the smoke wafting onto the sidewalk, right at stroller level. I spoke a couple days ago with a woman who told me that her neighbor exits his house when he wants a smoke, and goes into his driveway. Very considerate of his family. Unfortunately, his driveway is right next to her bedroom window, and she is very sensitive to smoke. Will we ban smoking outdoors in residential neighborhoods? If we do, parents that currently go outside to smoke to protect their children’s lungs will be forced back inside to conform to the law.

I saw somewhere that 700 U.S. communities have enacted outdoor smoking bans or restrictions, most of them cities with much higher populations. How many tens of thousands of cities are there in this country? Seven hundred is a very small percentage. Why does Sierra Madre, a “friendly” little village, need to follow the path of the big cities? Do we want to be Pasadena? Aren’t we proud of our unique small-town status? Aren’t we “friendly” enough to be considerate of others without actually enacting a law to legislate this?

Who’s going to enforce this law? What if someone lights up downtown, and the police are called? They hurry on down to the place where it’s happening, but by then the cigarette has been put out. What if four people do it at the same time, in different establishments? Are our police going to be run ragged trying to enforce the smoking law, most times a futile effort?

While I am sensitive to the concerns of those with health issues, and parents who are trying to protect their children, I just can’t get behind the proposed restrictions. People complained about shock jocks and their crass behavior on the radio, and the argument was, well, change the station, or you have an on/off switch. Non-smokers can change the station or on/off switches (eat indoors, or go to restaurants that have non-smoking sections in their outdoor dining area). Most, though admittedly not all, smokers are considerate of non-smokers and will be happy to move away while smoking, or put it out until you’ve left, if they are asked politely.

Now that the issue has been raised, I think restaurant owners are more sensitive about it, and some will most likely, if their outdoor dining area is large enough, offer non-smoking sections. Some that have smaller outdoor dining areas may ban smoking voluntarily, though since their dining areas are often not on their property (they are on public right of way sidewalks) they can’t always enforce it. But I think that with a little voluntary effort on the part of restaurant owners, and some consideration and civility toward one another, by both smokers and non-smokers, of the other’s rights (they both have them, after all), it should be possible to live and let live, as has been Sierra Madre’s behavior for more than one hundred years, without legislating our neighbors’ and friends’ behavior.