Land of Liberty? No Longer in Belmont, California

I’ll confess that I’ve quietly applauded the spread of no smoking establishments.  I don’t believe the government should ban smoking in restaurants, bars, and airplanes, but I’ve enjoyed the new smoke-free atmosphere.

Nevertheless, it should not be a matter of the law.  The health argument misses the larger point:  people should be free to make choices, and that includes not only smoking, but smoking in restaurants, bars, and airplanes so long as the owners will let them do so.  People who don’t like smoke can go (and work) elsewhere.

There’s no reason that every business must have the same rules.  Why, for instance, in California, a state of 37 million people, is it illegal for even one bar in one city to allow smoking?  This is fascism with a human face, the demand that everyone else submit to one’s personal preferences, never mind what everyone else desires.

Now a town in California, naturally, has taken neo-prohibition one step further:  apartment buildings.

Reports the New York Times:

During her 50 years of smoking, Edith Frederickson says, she has lit up in restaurants and bars, airplanes and trains, and indoors and out, all as part of a two-pack-a-day habit that she regrets not a bit. But as of two weeks ago, Ms. Frederickson can no longer smoke in the one place she loves the most: her home.

Ms. Frederickson lives in an apartment in Belmont, Calif., a quiet Silicon Valley city that is now home to perhaps the nation’s strictest antismoking law, effectively outlawing lighting up in all apartment buildings.

“I’m absolutely outraged,” said Ms. Frederickson, 72, pulling on a Winston as she sat on a concrete slab outside her single-room apartment. “They’re telling you how to live and what to do, and they’re doing it right here in America.”

And that the ban should have originated in her very building — a sleepy government-subsidized retirement complex called Bonnie Brae Terrace — is even more galling. Indeed, according to city officials, a driving force behind the passage of the law was a group of retirees from the complex who lobbied the city to stop secondhand smoke from drifting into their apartments from the neighbors’ places.

“They took it upon themselves to do something about it,” said Valerie Harnish, the city’s information services manager. “And they did.”

Public health advocates are closely watching to see what happens with Belmont, seeing it as a new front in their national battle against tobacco, one that seeks to place limits on smoking in buildings where tenants share walls, ceilings and — by their logic — air. Not surprisingly, habitually health-conscious California has been ahead of the curve on the issue, with several other cities passing bans on smoking in most units in privately owned apartment buildings, but none has gone as far as Belmont, which prohibits smoking in any apartment that shares a floor or ceiling with another, including condominiums.

“I think Belmont broke through this invisible barrier in the sense that it addressed drifting smoke in housing as a public health issue,” said Serena Chen, the regional director of policy and tobacco programs for the American Lung Association of California. “They simply said that secondhand smoke is no less dangerous when it’s in your bedroom than in your workplace.”

Again, the obvious answer is to let apartment owners set their own rules.  Over time I suspect that some apartment complexes would cater to nonsmokers and others to smokers, if nothing else by creating nonsmoking and smoking floors.

This sort of prohibition is far more offensive than the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, since it invades the home, which traditionally is accorded the greatest privacy.  And imagine what enforcement will inevitably entail:  apartment raids to check the smell if not catch residents “in the act.”

It becomes ever more difficult to refer to America as “the land of the free.”  Unfortunately, that phrase increasingly has come to mock America’s former heritage of liberty.