butting in…

After nearly 13 months of Washington’s smoking ban, this week’s birdcage liner has written a front page expose on the proliferation of butts littering our public spaces. The feature article is worth perusing although it is somewhat light fare for a feature. After reading, file subsequently under “The Obvious — Mastery of — Tell Us Something We Don’t Know”.

There is a good reason for my snark that goes well beyond the Seattle Weekly bashing that is the height of Emerald City fashion these days. Way back at this time last year, we had a stellar undergraduate student work on an independent study project to document and investigate the effects of the then-only-months-old smoking ban. With more initiative and resolve than I would have had, she gave up sleeping in on Sundays and investigated several bar-heavy neighborhoods on the mornings after weekend debauchery –most notably Ballard, Capitol Hill, and Pioneer Square. Additionally, she took a ton of photographs. And unlike the Weekly, which spoke to only some deputy vice-komissar at King County Public Health, Beth went straight to the top and contacted Roger Valdez, head butt-snuffer himself.

I found his comments particularly telling of the bureaucratic mindset and of the militant zealotry that prevented anyone from actually thinking about the implications of the ban:

[Mr. Valdez] told me that most of the planning had been around how to deal with the expected onslaught of complaints about violations concerning the 25-foot rule. The number of complaints, however, turned out to be far fewer than expected. Valdez admitted that an increase in cigarette butts on city streets was never a consideration but acknowledged that it (as well as increased noise issues) is, indeed, a problem. Interestingly enough, Valdez noted that an increase in cigarette butts could be a positive thing because it shows that people are following the law.

Her full reflection and selected photographs can be viewed on the project web site. I can’t really criticize the Weekly’s skinny article too much cuz nobody cares what us academic types say, so it gives us a chance to piggyback our work on the popularity of a mainstream media piece while saying “we told you so” at the same time.

Personally, the execution and the draconian mean-spiritedness of the ban rubbed me the wrong way, which is why I, as a non-smoker, vehemently opposed the ban. The entire campaign was run on a very emotional –rather than factual– level reminiscent of the way certain presidential administrations run shop. With relative impunity, the majority felt free to run rampant over the minority. Furthermore, as Philip Dawdy so masterfully analyzed, it was a divisive campaign to vilify and dehumanize smokers themselves. Moreover, such dubious legislation resulting from a flawed initiative could easily be transferred to run any rights-curtailing campaign. The day that municipal units decided to redefine outdoor bus shelters as enclosed public spaces warranting protection of the 25-foot rule, I knew that the long arm of the law had reached too far.

At one time last summer, I had written a polemic piece about this whole debacle. And that was long after I had the chance to cool down a bit. I was annoyed by the nagging feeling that Mr. Valdez et al. despised smoking so much that providing ashtrays seemed verbotten for fear of encouraging smoking within the 25-foot zone, or breaking the law somehow by providing a venue for people to light up. It was mystifying how quickly any ashtray had been Stalinistically purged from the public sphere.

These days, though, I are trying to be more constructive. Therefore, I’ll end on a positive note by pointing, as usual, to the forward thinking of our neighbours to the Nourth, who realize that you can have your smoking restrictions while still providing for the needs of citizens who smoke.

Mr. Valdez, let us have some ashtrays!

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