Outdoor Smoking: A Compromise

Outdoor Smoking: A Compromise

Outdoor Smoking: A Compromise

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 28 2009 8:24 AM

Outdoor Smoking: A Compromise

Last month, I went ballistic over New York City's plan to ban smoking in parks and public beaches . My argument was that you don't have to ban smoking on every square inch of park land to protect nonsmokers from the person next to them. You can chalk off spaces where smoking is prohibited. Just figure out how much clean breathing room people need, and draw a line.

It looks like I may get my wish—not in New York, but in Los Angeles. L.A. already forbids outdoor smoking in parks and beaches. But yesterday, the city council advanced a proposal to ban outdoor smoking at restaurants. And this time, the ban isn't comprehensive; it's spatially circumscribed. Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times spells out the details :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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A Los Angeles City Council committee voiced support today for a ban on smoking in the city's outdoor dining areas, but ordered several changes to the ordinance before sending it to the full council for approval.  ... The legislation ... would ban smoking within a 10-foot radius of outdoor dining areas. The proposed no-smoking area around mobile food trucks and food kiosks would extend for 40 feet.

Ten feet sounds about right. After I attacked the New York plan, an anti-smoking researcher challenged me to examine studies of outdoor secondhand smoke. So I did . Among other things, the studies noted that smoke exposure levels from outdoor cigarettes were "very localized." One study reported :

We observed a clear reduction in OTS [outdoor tobacco smoke] levels as the distance from a tobacco source increased. Generally, average levels within 0.5 m [meters] from a single cigarette source were quite high and comparable to indoor levels, and OTS levels at distances greater than 1 or 2 m were much lower. ... At distances larger than 2 m, levels near single cigarettes were generally close to background.

Roughly translated, this means that if you're downwind of an outdoor smoker, standing within two feet subjects you to exposure comparable to being indoors with that smoker. Move seven feet away, however, and you're breathing normal air. Accordingly, a city that prohibits indoor restaurant smoking to protect nonsmokers should extend this policy to smoking within two feet of an outdoor dining area. Beyond seven feet, the restriction loses its logic. I don't see any harm in extending the radius to 10 feet, just to play it safe.

The Los Angeles proposal is still being haggled over. For all I know, the buffer zone will end up being 15 or 20 feet. The important thing is that it'll be clear and limited. If we're lucky, it will set a precedent for regulating outdoor smoking based on science, not revulsion. And you'll be free to light up and enjoy your cigarette, as long as you keep your butt out of my face.