Public Comment

The Deadly Non-Emergency

By Carol Denney
Monday September 20, 2010 - 03:59:00 PM

If I stood on a public street and sprayed school kids with bug spray, I hope you would be outraged.  

But every day in Berkeley, smokers at bus stops envelope everyone in secondhand smoke, deadly even in small doses. School kids, pregnant women, everybody has to breathe it or risk missing the bus. If they say a word of reproach about the illegal behavior, they risk being assaulted by someone they have to share the bus stop with daily. 

The science on deadly secondhand smoke is clear. The bus stop regulation prohibiting smoking is more than six years old. Many of the bus stop regulations are now superseded by commercial districts smokefree regulations, which are equally unenforced. 

It’s deadly, even in small doses, immediately so for many people with cardiovascular disease. We have forward-thinking policymakers who, years ago, saw the importance of the law, and we have the law. What we don’t have is enforcement, and hundreds of people are getting a cumulative, daily dose of toxins because they simply cannot avoid going to work, to school, to church, to the post office. 

On the Berkeley Police Department’s website is an area where one can report crimes by email or by phone. The categories are: “ Harassing Phone Calls ”, “Theft from Vehicle”, Theft Vehicle Tampering”, Identity Theft ”, and “Vandalism.” There’s no category regarding areas where smokers, who often take cues from each other rather than signs, have decided to test the limits of Berkeley’s enforcement policies. 

Call your City Council representatives. Recommend that smokefree bus stops move up the priority list, so that they are considered at least as important as vandalism and harassing phone calls, neither of which is deadly. It’s true that the police have to prioritize, but on the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and especially since crime is down 10% in almost all categories, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that people with disabilities are not necessarily able to stand at a distance from smoke for long periods of time and need equal access to the bus stops.  

Please speak up. You don’t have to be disabled, or pregnant, or especially sensitive to cigarette smoke to participate in the best, most cost-effective effort to reduce secondhand smoke exposure, preventable deaths, and health costs by simply speaking up when smokers light up at bus stops or in commercial districts. You might even be a smoker, like most smokers, who hopes to quit and appreciates the common sense of regulation. 

Please help educate your neighbors, your commercial district merchants, and your smoking friends about the necessity of protecting people from secondhand smoke. Berkeley’s Public Health Department has stickers available to merchants and the public, which are useful to help educate people about the law. The Police Review Commission, on September 15th, unanimously recommended improved training and enforcement. 

But don’t forget to simply speak up. Smokers often bank on the general unwillingness to confront someone about secondhand smoke to render an entire beach, a park, a sidewalk, and certainly a bus stop completely unavailable to others. And while it may not seem like an emergency to you, to some of us it is. 

Carol Denney is a Berkeley resident, a bus rider, and a cancer survivor.