Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
City of San Marcos council member Fred Terry has written a commentary opposing a ban on public smoking in San Marcos and a ban on the use of alcohol in city parks. Terry did not reveal whether he has any personal conflicts with these proposals, that is, whether he drinks or smokes, so we can’t judge his comments with those potential conflicts in mind. I neither smoke nor drink alcohol, and I arrive at conclusions on the public smoking ban that are different from Terry’s, and I believe that reasonable people can differ on both of these issues.
Regarding the proposed alcohol ban, Terry argues that alcohol in the parks should be allowed because it is fun to drink while eating BBQ and there are other laws that control excessive alcohol use. While it is true that for some people alcohol use is fun while eating BBQ, others are able to have fun without it. But I don’t consider alcohol use by another an activity that necessarily impinges on my freedom to enjoy the parks. However, it is not clear to me that the use of alcohol will be tied to eating, so Terry’s example may not be completely on point. I assume that people will be allowed to drink alcohol in the parks whether or not they are also eating food.
Terry’s points about drinking alcohol in the parks seem well-taken to me, provided that we have adequate enforcement of the laws against public intoxication, underage drinking, and disorderly conduct. Perhaps the city could adopt a volunteer police auxiliary system or volunteer park friends program to patrol the parks to discourage and report alcohol abuse so that families are not burdened with responsibility for enforcing the laws against alcohol abuse. Someone who makes a report of alcohol abuse in a public park should not be required to provide a name or any other identification and none should be sought or recorded. This anonymity would prevent the possibility that the offender would learn the identity of the person reporting the unwanted behavior and retaliate. As long as families are not bothered by undesirable alcohol-induced behaviors, the use of alcohol in the parks should not be a health and safety problem, and regulating against it seems unnecessary.
Further, the fact that some people are personally offended by alcohol use is not an actual impingement on their right to use and enjoy the park. For example, some people may object to the odors of some foods that others are eating, but that personal objection should not give the offended person the right to control what foods another person chooses to eat. Allowing people to drink alcohol in the public parks may decrease my enjoyment of the parks, but it would not necessarily affect my health, safety, or welfare.
The same cannot be said for smoking in public, however. The dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke to health–it can cause cancer and respiratory problems–are well documented by scientific evidence. While those who drink alcohol in public parks do not compel me to drink, smokers in public places compel me to inhale second-hand smoke. At that point, another’s right to inhale noxious substances impinges on my right to be free of those same substances. I have many times had to walk through a cloud of tobacco smoke to get in or out of buildings where smoking was not permitted. The same is true of just walking down the sidewalk and involuntarily breathing in some other person’s smoke.
This is the most significant way smoking is different from drinking alcohol. It is not possible to smoke and not share that smoke with those around you. In a public place, my right not to inhale dangerous substances against my will should take precedence over the right of another to smoke. As has been pointed out many times, it is impossible to maintain a section of a swimming pool for urinating without subjecting all users of the pool to the urine. Likewise, it is not possible to isolate smoking sections of public places, including places of public accommodation (restaurants, bars, stores, hotel lobbies, workplaces, etc.), from people who do not wish to breathe tobacco smoke. The only successful public policy that protects the health and safety of everyone, including the employees of local businesses, is to prohibit tobacco smoking in public places.
Terry’s libertarian philosophy appeals to me in many respects, but it should not prevent the citizens and their public officials from deciding the quality of life we want to enjoy in San Marcos. Public alcohol and tobacco use are quality-of-life issues, but they each affect us differently, which is why I arrive at a conclusion about public tobacco use that is different from Terry’s, and I have different reasons for not opposing public park alcohol use, as long as families are protected from its potential undesirable consequences.
There should be no question in anyone’s mind that tobacco use is a health and safety problem. As such, it is appropriate for government to regulate it. The same can be said for the public abuse of alcohol. As long as alcohol is used responsibly in public parks, there is not a need for further regulation because it will not create a health and safety issue, but the City Council should make sure that alcohol abuse can be adequately controlled in the city’s parks.
Terry’s comments about government restriction limiting freedoms, which then “slows down economic growth opportunities,” causing businesses to choose not “to do business” in such communities is pure libertarian philosophizing, unsupported by evidence. It could be true, but I am not aware of any studies that show this to be the case. We can all exchange anecdotes to support both sides of that discussion, but anecdotes are not the best way to make public policy. The two public policy issues at question–a public smoking ban and a ban on alcohol in the parks–exist in many communities that have robust local economies, as well as in communities without the bans that do equally well. To me, these issues are a matter of local preference and values, unrelated to the economic health of San Marcos.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San MarcosEmail | Print