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“Mind if I Depilate Squirrel Hides in My Living Room?”:

You’ve just moved into a lovely multi-family dwelling in Santa Monica with your two young kids. Knock- knock. It’s your new downstairs neighbor. He seems like a nice enough dude. He welcomes you, but then explains that he lives just below you and his hobby is removing the hair from animal hides with hydrosulfides he whips up himself in the kitchen. He hopes you won’t mind the occasional sulfur rotten egg smell wafting up through the floor.

Or maybe he just says, “I’m a smoker. Is that going to bother you?”

I never had a neighbor that was tanning hides, although when I lived in Denver three young men moved out of the apartment next to me in a hurry and left their dead pet rabbit behind in the debris they dumped in the hallway. Whatever that said about them, it ruined Easter for me.

So we can’t always pick our neighbors, and more to the point we can’t choose their behaviors. But can we tell them where they can and cannot smoke? That’s going to be the reach of some legislation under consideration by the Santa Monica City Council regarding multi-family dwellings.

Understanding that restricting the human habit of smoking often hits a nerve, the Council has wisely set-up public hearings on the matter. One of these, on May 29 at 2 pm at the Main Library Auditorium at Sixth and Santa Monica Boulevard, will look at various dimensions of the problem as it’s been approached in other cities including prohibiting smoking in common areas and possibly prohibiting smoking in newly-occupied units.

If you could live in a smoke-free building, you would. And you’d expect the law to be reaching for that, just as it most likely prohibited the processing of animal hides in multi-family dwellings years ago. But with anti-smoking and smoking-restrictive decisions there is always a dimension of “rights.”

Because of the overwhelming amount of evidence that smoking is a health and environmental hazard we’re probably quicker to act on smoking in neighbor/housing situations than we might be on other neighbor-related problems such as the volume of your neighbor’s music, their front yard display of used auto parts, or their predilection for profanity.

That last one is particularly interesting to me. I enjoy using profanity; who doesn’t? But one can sometimes end-up with neighbors who seem physiologically prohibited from talking on any subject without swearing up a storm that you are forced to weather. Happy, sad, describing a newborn infant or the Pope’s visit… every exchange features the same adjective over and over and over. At a certain level, it’s offensive simply because it lacks creativity. You wonder if someone is tucking their children into bed at night by asking, “Did you kids remember to brush your f***ing teeth?”

And of course they are because, alas, people have a right to swear like pirates. So, do owe smokers some rights? Ultimately I believe we do since chronic cigarette smoking aligns neatly with drug addiction and we pursue the possession and sale of ‘street’ drugs with more legal fervor than we do the users of the drugs. Perhaps this stems from a compassionate view of the user as victim. But unlike illegal drugs, the government benefits from cigarette taxes; stores realize profit from cigarette sales, and movies and television product-place addictive cigarettes right next to the cars and soft drinks. Yet we keep shrinking the areas where people can smoke.

But that’s wrestling with the contradictory realities of what we might call the smoking conundrum. When it comes to having garbage dumped involuntarily into our own or our children’s lungs the window of personal freedom narrows, as it should. We don’t miss the ‘right’ to work on animal hides in our living rooms because it’s archaic and anti-social and extremely unnecessary way before it’s a ‘right.’ We ban smoking in areas where it would force a sinister residue into the lungs of non-smokers because that makes logical and moral sense and our laws are not compelled to please a Larry the Cable Guy sensibility of “rights.” Democracy and fairness bring public hearings on smoking in multi-family properties: Very good. Talk it up, people. Then, logically, let’s take the garbage outside.

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