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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Smoke-Out

Air Date: Week of

You already can’t smoke in bars or restaurants or even on some beaches in California. But authorities could opt for even stricter rules if they decide cigarette smoke is a toxic air contaminant. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. From time to time, we bring you news of what regulations are brewing in California because when they make a rule there, it often shows up on the books of the 49 other states at some point down the line. For example, California was the first state to enforce tight emissions controls on vehicles.

It was also the first to ban smoking in restaurants and bars—and now you can't even light up on some beaches in California. But some say those smoking bans still leave certain people vulnerable to the increasingly well-understood health hazards of secondhand tobacco smoke.

Our West Coast Bureau Chief Ingrid Lobet joins me now to talk about what California's contemplating. Hi, Ingrid.

LOBET: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, what's in the air? California could declare secondhand tobacco smoke a, quote, "toxic air contaminant," that is, a public danger?

LOBET: That's right. The staff at the Air Resources Board, the powerful air agency here, is preparing an argument that secondhand smoke is still a serious risk to some people.

CURWOOD: Which people? I mean, I thought there was practically no place you could smoke now in California?

LOBET: There aren't very many, and smokers will tell you it's not easy being a smoker here anymore. And per capita cigarette smoking has been dropping here.

But cigarette smoke contains breathable or what they call “respirable” particulate. And they've even counted how much of it is released into the air each year by smokers in California, just the way they would for an industrial emission. And along with that, there's also a list of carcinogenic compounds that are in the smoke, like benzene, butadiene, cadmium and toluene. And, after they counted all these up, they looked at where the exposure was occurring and it's clear that it's very unevenly distributed. Basically, you're only really exposed in places like designated smoking areas, bingo parlors, and, importantly, in people's homes and cars.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you about the homes and cars but first, what are the associated health problems with tobacco smoke? Of course, what comes to mind is lung cancer.

LOBET: Right. The Air Resources Board talks about lung cancer, also breast cancer and an increased risk of heart disease. But if you look at the report carefully, what it also talks about quite a bit is the stated risks to young children. The reports says studies show increased risks of ear infections, lower respiratory infections and low birth weight in newborns. They say that environmental tobacco smoke may impact fetal growth in 1,600 newborns in California. So, this focus on children may be changing the picture.

CURWOOD: That's right, because children don't' get to choose where they are. I mean, an adult can simply choose not to be in a confined space with a smoker but that doesn't work for a child or, of course, a fetus.

LOBET: No, a child can't choose. And what they would do afterwards if they did decide to declare this a toxic air contaminant is really the crux of the matter. They could decide that current efforts aimed at educating people about the problems of secondhand smoke are already enough. Or they could decide to step up those efforts somewhat. Or conceivably, they might try to ban smoking inside people's homes, or certain parts of their homes, or cars when children are present.

CURWOOD: Could they do that?

LOBET: Well, I spoke to several people and most of them said probably yes. I spoke with a former Air Board member who said it's not unreasonable to think that they'll consider banning smoking at home. I spoke with one of the scientists who has reviewed the work to date. He thought it was a great idea. He said he can't bear to see adults lighting up with kids in the car. And I spoke with an attorney who's a constitutional law expert with the libertarian Cato Institute, and he said California would probably prevail if it tried to do this.

CURWOOD: What kind of precedent is there for regulating individual behavior in this way?

LOBET: There's not much precedent. You could point to regulating dry-cleaners or nail polish, but both of those are controlled at the production level. You could point to some controls on barbecues, and in many states there are periodic bans on burning slash out-of- doors. But one veteran lobbyist who I spoke with who helped write the original law told me that it was really intended for industry, not for regulating individual parent's behavior in their homes or cars.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I can imagine now if California wants to ban smoking in homes and cars that the smokers rights groups are really gonna get mobilized. I mean, I would expect that some of them would just be outraged to be told that they can't smoke at home.

LOBET: And we should repeat here that the Air board is not saying it would do that yet. They're just pointing out the high level of particulates that children are exposed to in some closed spaces. But, yes, I think some people would be outraged. This attorney Robert Levy with the Cato Institute characterized a move like this as “fascistic.” He said California would be breaching the privacy of the parent/child relationship. And he asked what would be next? If we know that too much TV can lead to being ignorant of literature, what about television? If we know that children who are fed a poor diet may suffer from childhood obesity and that's a problem, where would it stop?

CURWOOD: I guess we'll find out. Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth's western correspondent. Thanks so much, Ingrid.

LOBET: You're welcome.

[MUSIC: "Boss" The Rumblers: Revenge of the Surf Instrumentals (MCA) 1995]



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