Palo Alto's ever-expanding ban on smoking is now drifting toward downtown and California Avenue.
By an 8-1 vote, with Greg Schmid dissenting, the City Council directed its Policy and Services Committee on Monday night to explore banning outdoor smoking in the city's two primary business thoroughfares. The council also charged city staff to conduct outreach to the residents, workers and property owners in the two areas, which would include University Avenue, California Avenue and possibly other nearby streets.
The idea was floated in a colleagues memo from Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and councilwomen Karen Holman and Gail Price. It comes about three months after the council voted to ban smoking in all public parks and open-space preserves, including the city's golf course. At the time, the council also increased the no-smoking buffer zone near public entrances to buildings from 20 to 25 feet.
The latter restriction already limits smokers on University to tiny sanctuaries, mostly in alleyways, plazas and street corners that are the requisite distance away from building entrances. Even so, the four council members urged the council to take things a step further and explore a comprehensive ban. This, the memo argued, would make enforcement easier and provide "clarity" on the current ban. The memo references smoke's "serious health impacts" and its effect on all people visiting or working in downtown.
"Smoke filters into buildings; and cigarette butts litter the sidewalks, planters and other visible public areas," the memo stated. "Business owners with outdoor dining areas are also affected as second-hand smoke drifts to outdoor eating areas, negatively affecting their customers' dining experience and potentially creating negative health impacts."
The council discussion followed a familiar pattern when it comes to smoking bans, a brief discussion, virtually no public input (one speaker, Trish Mulvey, lauded the council for moving ahead with the broader restriction), and a quick vote. In this case, however, the vote was not unanimous. In Schmid's dissent, he suggested the city may be going too far.
He cited lessons he learned from reading about 16th century Europe, a region ravaged by a series long and bloody wars, including the Thirty Years' War and the Eighty Years' War. The wars were finally settled under the Treaty of Westphalia, which he said recognized for the first time that "it's not the role of governments to tell people what to think, or what to believe or how to act, as long as they don't hurt other people."
"Toleration becomes a key part of what governments do," Schmid said.
He agreed with his colleagues that smoking is "nasty" and "uncomfortable" and said it makes sense to ban it indoors and in parks and playgrounds. But he was not convinced that it should be banned on public thoroughfares. The committee, he said, should review medical literature and see if there are any studies suggesting that merely walking down the street where someone is smoking would lead to lung cancer or respiratory disease.
"Otherwise, I think the role of local government is toleration and acceptance of things we don't necessarily like," Schmid said.
Councilman Pat Burt voiced a similar sentiment, though he ultimately joined the council majority in recommending further exploration, which will include research on other jurisdictions' approaches to smoking in downtown corridors. He stressed the need to conduct outreach and come up with an ordinance that isn't too heavy-handed. Smoking, he said, annoys him. But that in itself isn't a reason to make it illegal.
"I want to be careful about legislating (against) things that annoy me," Burt said. "It's one thing if it's a health risk, another thing if it's a personal preference."