SF smokers kicked to curb, by the cars

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By Adam Lesser

San Francisco smokers will be hit with the latest in a long lines of restrictions starting April 25, when they’ll be kicked to the curb, out by the cars whose tailpipes are at least as dangerous as secondhand smoke.

But drivers haven’t been as easy to demonize as smokers. Light up within 15 feet of a building entrance and you’ll be breaking the law. Other spots where smokers will be barred include outdoor areas at cafes and restaurants, farmer’s markets, and charity bingo games (grandma can take her wheelchair to the curb if she needs a puff).

But pot smokers need not fear. The new law maintains a provision allowing you to light up in licensed dispensaries. Smoking patios at bars are still okay, though smokers probably shouldn’t get too comfortable.

            The San Francisco Department of Public Health frames the smoking debate in terms of the impacts of secondhand smoke. And there’s some good data there. People tend to think lungs and cancer when they think smoking, but the real problem with second hand smoke is heart attacks.  A 2005 estimate from the California EPA put the number of heart attack deaths from second hand smoke at 3,600 annually. Second hand smoke contains a host of toxins from benzene to arsenic.

But it’s hard to know the incremental benefits of moving smokers to the curb. Almost all of the positive data on public health improvements from smoking bans has come from measures the city has already taken. But Mele Lau-Smith of DPH gave me a preview of the potential next battleground: third hand smoke.

“The new science that’s coming out on third hand smoke is interesting. Third hand smoke is everything that clings to furniture and hair and takes longer to dissipate. They’re smaller particles that get deeper into the lungs,” she says. The term was coined last year in the journal Pediatrics and a 2010 paper showed that nicotine reacts with nitrous acid to form carcinogenic molecules that hang around long after a smoker has left the room.

            So the news gets worse for smokers, and the anti-smoking crusade to completely eliminate smoking gains an inch. The smoking prevalence rate in California is among the lowest in the country at 14.3 percent. Most states are in the 18-20 percent range.

            And while it’s all well and good, one wonders if there are other problems in the air besides second hand smoke. Choosing to live in an urban area like San Francisco lowers one’s life expectancy by two years, and one of the major reasons for that is auto exhaust and illnesses related to poorer air quality.

            Mark Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, believes the government should keep regulating until smoking is eliminated. But when comparing deaths from automobile emissions versus second hand smoke, he added, “If you look at the mass of the automobile exhaust, then you’re looking at a much bigger figure than second hand smoke. Vehicle exhaust is still way under regulated for addressing health concerns.” Over 2 million people die globally from air pollution each year. About 500,000 die from second hand smoke.

            In the end, Jacobson says it comes down to combustion. When you start burning, you release toxins that eventually hurt or kill people. It doesn’t matter if it’s diesel fuel, gasoline, or tobacco. Combustible products harm public health, and in the case of oil, the environment.

Smokers have proven ideal targets for taxes. San Francisco smokers pay $2.08 in taxes on every pack of cigarettes. When you’re in the minority and the government needs cash, it’s a political no brainer. A 20 cent cigarette tax was tacked on by the Board of Supervisors last October, done under the argument that the money was needed to clean up cigarette butts. Recent proposals to add a local 10 cent tax on gasoline in order to help various cash strapped public transit agencies haven’t found much traction.

So smokers, enjoy the summer. It’ll be the last summer you can light up after an outdoor sunset meal. The smoking ban at restaurants won’t be implemented for another six months.

But come November you’ll be enjoying that smoke out by the curb, where you’ll also be treated to some car exhaust. But, hey, at this point you’re probably all in anyways.