Time and history reveal that we do, at certain points, jettison some of our worst habits. For example, you might view the entire body of federal, state, and local laws pertaining to pollution as us realizing that we can’t keep befouling our own nests. This would be way before you got to the larger shared environmental ramifications. In a similarly self-protective way, there was a time when you’d watch popular TV shows and movies and see drunks portrayed as amusing clowns who often fumbled with getting their keys into the locked doors of their automobiles. Then enough people died in alcohol-related accidents that we began treating drunk driving as the deadly behavior that it is.
So if Santa Monica is moving toward becoming one of the most cigarette smoke-free cities in America, one could argue that it’s the march of history in step with good sense and not because aging hippies harden over time into intolerant health snobs. Still we might take a moment to consider whether smokers have rights, specifically if they have some kind of smoker’s rights. Our immediate inclination is that they don’t, but maybe we’re obligated to look more closely.
As I understand it, the Santa Monica City Council is currently working on a report concerning the effectiveness of last year’s ordinance that outlawed smoking in common of residential buildings. There have been efforts to expand that ordinance, to include areas in apartment buildings and multiple-unit dwellings such that smokers would not be allowed to smoke on their own patios and balconies and in that way pollute the breathing air of other residents in a building. You can see where all this is headed, or to borrow from Dylan… you don’t need a columnist to know which way the smoke blows.
Of course smoking indoors in your own apartment also causes smoke to travel to other parts of the building you reside in. It’s really a dead-end argument: Smoking in and around any multiple-unit dwelling, unless there’s some kind of basement lounge equipped with smoke-eaters and elaborate duct work, is going to dirty the breathing air of other tenants. Still, could there be any kind of “right” for smoker’s to smoke in or around their apartment residences?
Back when the Council was considering the “common areas” ordinance, this column made an analogy to the tanning of animal hides. Assuming for a moment that the powerful solvents involved were legal for home use, would an apartment dweller have the “right” to tan hides in their living room (or even a “common area”) and create the stink that goes with that process? Eventually, in that scenario, something would have to give. Perhaps the market for squirrel hide boots and hats would bottom out, and the problem would just go away.
But we generally presume the smoking of tobacco to be different from tanning hides. It’s not commerce, it’s a personal habit. If we are now able to understand that behaviors resulting in obesity are not something people can simply turn off like a light switch, then we’re certainly sympathetic to the addictive components of cigarette smoking. And we know that personal health-denigrating habits such as overeating, unprotected sex, substance abuse… all enjoy a kind of shielded privacy in people’s homes.
Okay, but… even if my apartment neighbor shoots heroin I’m not immediately the victim of any kind of secondhand dope. The heroin may result in other bad behaviors and some rough trade coming in and out of my building, but the habit itself does not have a residue that aggravates or causes asthma in others living on the floor above. You’d like the junkie to move somewhere else, but he’s not literally blowing smoke in you or your children’s lungs.
Still, smokers may have a right to the same kind of initial sympathy that might be engendered in discovering that a neighbor has a heroin problem. Yet why would we collectively agree to remove the threat of asbestos from our homes and schools, and then allow smoking apartment neighbors to manufacture a similar threat to our lungs each time they light up? Smokers may win our acknowledgement that normal human behaviors include habitual weaknesses. But we gave that same acknowledgement to drinking then overwhelmingly agreed that alcoholic intoxication is a weakness that cannot be indulged behind the wheel of a car.
I’m unclear on where smokers go if and when Santa Monica moves to discriminate against them living and smoking in apartments. My heart sinks when I think of something like a dedicated smoker’s apartment building… where every single resident is puffing out secondhand smoke round the clock. But in the emerging equation, as Santa Monica moves slowly forward on this, what is it that will give way?
That brings me back to history and time. If Santa Monica is looking to end that period in our city’s history where a smoker’s indoor residue poisoned the air of others living in the same building, then smoking in your apartment here is going the way of the comical drunk with his hat on sideways who hiccups and keeps dropping his car keys. That stereotype disappeared because it invoked the needless heartbreak and loss caused by drunk driving. People still die from drunk driving, but we’ve moved past any consideration whatsoever of a “right” to drive drunk. Looks like, in our town anyway, we’re moving again.