Outdoor dining is one of Sacramento’s great pleasures, and smoking is bad for you. Beyond that, there’s little agreement in the debate whether to ban smoking on restaurant patios.
As City Council members consider a possible ordinance, their first priority should be public health – of patrons, but also of employees who spend more time breathing in secondhand smoke.
What became clear Tuesday from the first council committee meeting on the issue is that there are competing interests. Opponents of an outright smoking ban emphasized choice. Restaurant owners should be able to decide whether to allow smoking on patios or not, they say; customers can weigh that when choosing where to eat.
Representatives from the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and Midtown Business Association warned that many restaurants are in fragile financial shape and can’t afford to lose customers to tougher smoking rules. This week, another well-known eatery – Tuli Bistro in midtown – shuttered suddenly, adding to the list of prominent closings in 2014.
But health and anti-smoking advocates reminded council members that secondhand smoke is harmful. Even in adults who have never smoked, it can cause heart disease (an estimated 46,000 deaths a year) and lung cancer (3,400 deaths annually), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After hearing from both sides, council members urged them to keep negotiating. There was some talk of possible compromises. For instance, a patio smoking ban could be in effect during “family” dining hours, but lifted later at night. There could be designated outdoor smoking areas. Bars could be under lesser restrictions than restaurants, or those that don’t serve food exempted entirely.
If a deal can be cut, that would make life easier for the council. But an agreement has not been produced in months of talks brokered by Steve Hansen, the councilman who represents midtown and downtown. And the council should be skeptical about how effective a partial ban would be. If one restaurant bans smoking but the one next door doesn’t, what’s to stop smoke from wafting? While children are more vulnerable to respiratory problems from secondhand smoke, shouldn’t adults be protected as well?
If there’s no deal, the council should move ahead on an ordinance. Council members plan to take several months to get it right. To understand all their options, they asked staff for more information on how many restaurants have outdoor seating and how many allow smoking, plus more detail on what other cities do.
State law bans smoking inside workplaces, including indoor areas of bars and restaurants, but does not make outdoor dining areas smoke-free. Local governments have stepped in; 73 cities and counties have complete bans and 42 others have some restrictions, according to the American Lung Association. (Davis is the only one in the Sacramento region.)
Because Sacramento doesn’t have such an ordinance, it gets a C on the American Lung Association’s report card. Among California’s 10 most populous cities, that’s better than Fresno, the same as Los Angeles and worse than San Francisco, which prohibits smoking in outdoor and sidewalk dining areas and within 10 feet of doors and windows at bars.
Sacramento can, and should, rate better. An outdoor smoking policy that puts public health first can help.