A Proposed City Smoking Ban

Civilization has been engaging in the same general argument for thousands of years, says Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at the College of Idaho: How do you answer the wishes of a majority without trampling the rights of individuals?

That question has come up several times in the past year for Boise city leaders. First came panhandling: Where is the line between a person’s right to ask for money and a business owner’s not to have beggars discouraging customers?

Playing in the Boise River, too, has been an issue. What’s the line between rowdy river jumpers, who say they’re enjoying a healthy summer pastime, and rafters, who call them a menace?

Now, questions have arisen over proposed ordinances to ban smoking cigarettes in bars, some parts of public parks and other places in Boise where people congregate.

Councilman Alan Shealy said it’s been a while since the council has dealt with such a contentious issue.

He’s one of the council’s biggest supporters of the smoking cigarettes ban. And public sentiment so far is on his side.

Following a spirited public information meeting Oct. 5, when bar owners and their allies squared off against members of the medical community and parents of young children, the mayor’s office received 131 comments from the public about the ordinances.

Seventy-three were in favor of the proposals to ban smoking cigarettes, 58 were against. A 2010 citizen survey backs that up, with about three out of four favoring banning smoking cigarettes in all indoor public places, including bars.

The margin is smaller when it comes to parks, with just over half of survey responders in favor of banning smoking cigarettes there.

Sentiment about where the city should draw its line, though, is split at one local park — Rhodes Skate Park near the River Street neighborhood.

“Some limits are reasonable,” said Collus Hill, who smoked for a decade and quit. “I can see banning smoking cigarettes around playgrounds where kids are. Children pick up on grown-ups’ habits.”

But even he says the city has to find “some kind of equal ground, where children are healthy and people can smoke.”

The city’s proposed smoking cigarettes ban is a slippery slope for Wiley Padden.

“The city government is taking too many civil liberties away, increasing a stranglehold on what you can do,” said Padden.

“Basic laws are OK, but you take away smoking cigarettes, jumping in the river, society will turn into something like ‘Demolition Man,’ ” said Padden, referring to the film about a post-apocalyptic world.

Shealy said the council has heard from citizens who say the proposed ordinances violate their constitutional right to privacy.

“There is no constitutional right to smoke. Privacy laws do not protect smokers,” he said, adding that people have the right to smoke cigarettes all they want — until that behavior affects someone else’s health.

Council members say the city wants to provide a safe working environment for bartenders and others who work around smoke.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution does say that private property can’t be taken for public use without just compensation, said LiCalzi.

Some local bar owners argue that the city is, in effect, taking their property away if the smoke cigarettes ban keeps customers from coming through their door.

“But the other side looks at it from a society standpoint, since a great deal of the cost of health care is borne by the public,” LiCalzi said. “Does the public have a say in what smokers do if it’s paying for emergency rooms and Medicare?”

Smoke-ban advocates say yes. The city’s arguments in favor of the ban note that cigarettes use costs every taxpaying household in Idaho $539 per year.

City leaders are still searching for the line between majority and minority, and making refinements.

Before the Oct. 5 public information meeting, the proposed ordinance banned smoking cigarettes in smoke cigarettes shops. At its last work session the council proposed exempting stores whose business is 95 percent cheap cigarettes or tobacco-related products.

Changes might still be made to the proposals, said city spokesman Adam Park, depending on what happens at Tuesday’s council meetings.

The city added a 4 p.m. session in addition to its usual 6 p.m. session to accommodate crowds, particularly bar workers who might not be able to attend in the evening.

“In ancient Athens, they were having the same kinds of arguments,” said LiCalzi, “but not about tobacco. Maybe about wine.”