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Where There’s Smoke

Who belongs in a smoke free downtown?

By Brian Zayatz

In 2014, the Northampton Board of Health (BOH) created a regulation in recognition of “the rights of those who wish to breathe smoke free air” prohibiting the smoking of most tobacco products in places of business around the city, as well as in outdoor public spaces such as parks or outside municipal buildings. Since Fall 2018, the BOH has been considering expanding the regulation to include the entire downtown areas of both Northampton and Florence, save for designated smoking areas, and will vote on the “smoke free downtown” initiative on Thursday, May 23 at JFK middle school, which is located 3.5 miles from downtown, and may be potentially difficult to access for those without cars.

The announcement of the new initiative caused some stirring from the community in the fall. The BOH hosted a public forum on the matter in October—the only forum besides the one scheduled for the day of the vote—where the Republican reported generally positive attitudes towards the changes. Various stakeholders interpreted the proposed regulations beyond the “rights”-based language included in the regulation itself. “It’s about education and public health,” said Massachusetts Association of Health Boards attorney Cheryl Sbarra. “It’s not meant to be punitive.”

When The Shoestring asked about the potentially punitive nature of the ban, Mayor Narkewicz insisted that “we’re really focused on tobacco and well-documented harmful effects of tobacco.”

Others, such as local attorney James Winston, were quoted with an interpretation more in line with the regulation’s language. “If people don’t care about their own lungs, they’re not going to care about second-hand smoke. I see no negatives.”

The rhetoric of the Northampton Police Department approaches the regulation as an opportunity for education. Chief Jody Kasper noted via email that, although officers will have the power to issue “non-criminal citations” starting at $100 and going up to $200 for the second offense and $300 for the third, the regulation will not take effect immediately, and instead an effort will be made towards “education and prevention”—to make sure residents are familiar with the regulations when they begin. Regarding current regulations, Kasper wrote that “our officers sometimes encounter people smoking in designated non-smoking areas. The officers typically just educate the person and the problem is resolved.”

Although it is certainly gracious of the NPD to offer its educational services to the city’s smokers, Smoke Free Downtown’s entrusting of public health education to armed agents of the state makes one wonder how coercive this education would be. After all, the packaging of any tobacco product will let you know the myriad of unpleasant side effects one can expect with prolonged use. It’s hard to imagine any smoker in 2019 doesn’t know the risks—so what exactly are the police educating us about?

To answer this, it may be helpful to turn to June Thunderstorm’s diatribe against smoking bans in The Baffler magazine. “Anyone who works for minimum wage already expects organ damage, physical pain, a reduced quality of life, and an untimely death,” Thunderstorm writes. “And that, no doubt, is why the ‘If You Smoke You’ll Get Sick’ warnings on packs aren’t working very well to inspire this particular group to quit: working shit jobs for shit pay is making the working class sicker, faster.” As Northampton continues to price out its working class and conspire against those who make their living on its streets, the educational message of the NPD becomes clear: if you’re going to stay, you better make it as easy as possible for the city’s wealthier residents to ignore you—and that means no more cigarette smoke.

Perhaps this is why the business community has also taken an interest in the ban. As an email obtained by The Shoestring reveals, Amy Cahillane, the Executive Director of the Downtown Northampton Association (the lobbying arm of the Chamber of Commerce), sent an email to downtown business owners encouraging them to attend Thursday’s hearing. At a public hearing held last year, a member of the Board of Health mentioned that they had heard complaints from business owners about people smoking in front of their stores. Such grumblings make it hard to believe that enforcement of the amended regulation would look similar to enforcement of the existing regulation. Even if police intervene as rarely as Chief Kasper claims they currently do, this does not address the fact that business owners will now be able to add smoking to the list of reasons they can call the police on people lingering outside their shops. The motive not to have panhandlers in front of one’s place of business would make this scenario far more likely than someone calling the cops on a smoker in Look Park.

The regulation “lets the police start an aggressive encounter as the good guy,” says local lawyer Dana Goldblatt, who has successfully litigated in defense of a houseless Northampton resident repeatedly targeted by NPD. “It’s the new jaywalking, [with] a progressive imprimatur.” Goldblatt explained that, like other public nuisance offenses, fines for a smoking ticket increase with time if they are not paid, but ultimately the DA or the city would have to decide to prosecute in order to force someone to pay, which almost never happens. However, she claims, this doesn’t matter.

“Disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, jaywalking, loitering – they have all have been discredited by decades of use to harass and criminalize the existence of black, brown, and poor people,” wrote Goldblatt via email. “What’s needed is an opening salvo for the police – an initial point of contact that is not overtly racist and classist. This excuse for contact triggers a confrontation, which the officer blames the suspect for escalating, which lead to arrest for such vague actions as ‘flailing his arms,’ ‘puffing his chest in an aggressive manner,’ or, my personal favorite, ‘shouting obscenities.’ After an arrest has been made, a shopkeeper whose storefront is now conveniently cleared “feels no guilt or shame about his role here, because the removal was not for the status crime of being poor or black (or both!) but for the atrocities of ‘polluting’ and being ‘uncooperative.’”

Smoke Free Downtown would amount to another in a slew of moves by the city government to regulate, surveil, and further limit the acceptable behaviors in Northampton’s downtown area. It will inevitably better equip police to initiate contact with people who the business community have identified as undesirable, with the ultimate goal of removing them from the downtown area. Video surveillance, the smoking ban, and the request for $75,000 of riot gear for the police are all sold to the public with the language of public health and safety. But the city government’s quieter efforts, such as the Mayor’s Panhandling Task Force or the police department’s daily treatment of the city’s houseless—culminating in moments like the beating, arrest, and pressing of trumped up charges of a houseless man over his peaceful protest at outside city hall—illuminate the true Orwellian meanings of these terms: perform middle class sensibilities, or suffer the consequences. The survival of local business, another refrain heard in city government meetings, is understood to be more important than ensuring all our neighbors have adequate housing and healthcare (beyond those provided upon incarceration).

The proposed expansion of this regulation acts as though the choice of whether to smoke tobacco or not is made in a vacuum with no societal pressures. Tobacco is currently the least illegal substance available to people priced out of the wellness industrial complex. As Thunderstorm points out, yoga, kale smoothies, and therapy take time and money that most hourly workers, especially those with additional unpaid caregiving obligations at home, can’t afford. “When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour,” Thunderstorm quotes Huffington Post writer Linda Tirado. “When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.”

Once we understand the true “educational” mission of the law, “public health” comes into focus as neither inclusive nor even particularly concerned with factors most likely to threaten the health of the city’s residents. Hampshire County has notoriously bad air quality, which, though steadily improving over the last decades, still received a failing grade from the American Lung Association for average number of days per year with high ozone, or smog, levels. The cause is not secondhand cigarette smoke, but heavy industry in other parts of the country, whose pollution is brought to New England via the jet stream. The ALA warns that this pollution could put the health of Hampshire County residents at risk, especially infants and people with respiratory issues like asthma. At press time, however, the BOH has not proposed any regulations recognizing the rights of those who choose not to be Midwestern industrial capitalists.

If not smoking is a “choice,” however conveniently enabled by class privilege, then not driving a car into town ought to be considered a choice, too. Ambient outdoor cigarette smoke and car exhaust carry similar health risks, and the latter is certainly more prevalent in our downtown area, yet the BOH has made no move to ban cars despite its assertion that loosely defined choices should determine one’s ability to access to clean air. The reason for this is likely that a smoking ban would most heavily impact the city’s poor, and an automobile ban would most heavily impact the city’s wealthy. Northampton’s middle class clean air devotees who care so much about cigarette smoke will never unite against car exhaust until they all own the latest electric cars, because then it will once again be the working class who are who are polluting the air that, for these rent (or home) prices, should be a little cleaner, shouldn’t it?

According to BOH meeting minutes from January, “The Mayor would like to see the smoking areas in place by the spring in order to proceed with this initiative.” The potential locations for the proposed smoking areas are supposed to be announced before Thursday’s vote, but BOH meeting minutes from April 18 have not yet been published and at the time of this writing it’s anyone’s guess where they might be. Whatever the BOH’s intention, and despite Chief Kasper’s assurances that her officers will be excellent etiquette teachers, the expanded regulation could open the door to ever greater interventions by police into daily life that will come down hardest on the city’s most vulnerable.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. His most recent piece was “The Fight for an Ideal” on Hampshire College.

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