Federalism has many virtues, but it also makes some problems more difficult to solve. I don’t care how much your local city council cares about air pollution, there isn’t a whole lot they–or even your state legislature, assuming you have a more enlightened one than we do here in Indiana–can do about it. Health policies likewise tend to require state or national action; there isn’t a lot that local communities can do.
But there are some things we can do locally, and there really isn’t any excuse for failing to do them. Cities and states can encourage healthy lifestyles and physical fitness by providing well-tended parks, by increasing bike lanes, and by banning smoking in public places. These measures not only promote public health, they ultimately save money by reducing Medicaid and similar costs.
The Ballard Administration has at least responded to calls for additional bike lanes (although those downtown, where I live, are considerably less than optimal–the ones on New York Street were evidently painted by someone who was drunk or otherwise seriously incapacitated). Otherwise, not so much. Far from expanding opportunities for recreation, our parks have been shamefully neglected. And worst of all, Ballard has consistently blocked efforts to ban smoking in public places.
The Mayor’s refusal to honor his campaign promise to sign a smoking-ban ordinance is particularly galling, not just because he did a 180-degree turn on the issue once he was elected, but because smoking bans are a low-cost, highly effective way to improve public health.
There are essentially two arguments against smoking bans. Bar owners worry that business will suffer if customers cannot smoke in their establishments. Other opponents of the bans argue that no one has to patronize a bar or restaurant–that if smoke bothers you, you can just go somewhere else. The evidence from other cities that have passed these bans should comfort the bar owners–far from diminishing, in many places business actually improved when nonsmoking customers weren’t assaulted by the smell of “eau de stale cigarette.” And the argument about choice ignores the very real health hazard smoking poses for employees. (When asked about the impact on workers, Mayor Ballard dismissed employees as “transients” whose health clearly was not a concern.)
Hint: Telling hard-working waiters and bartenders that they should just get another job if smoke bothers them ignores the realities of the current job market, among other things.
Cities are in a world of fiscal hurt right now. At a time when there isn’t money to do many of the things that would improve our neighborhoods, a smoking ban is a virtually cost-free way to improve public health and make our public spaces more pleasant at the same time. Polls show an overwhelming majority of residents favoring such a ban, and in fact, when he ran for Mayor, Ballard supported the policy.
All of this makes the Mayor’s current, stubborn opposition hard to understand. If he has reasons for his abrupt about-face, he has yet to articulate them.