Imagine a world free from secondhand smoke. San Francisco can make it a reality, but it is missing its opportunity.
On Dec. 1, the Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to outlaw smoking and vaping in apartment buildings of three or more units. Board President Norman Yee, who authored the legislation, said, “We are discussing the right of our residents to breathe clean air.” Yee is correct that breathing clean air is a human right; the National Institutes of Health and the United Nations affirm this, and we all should support his mission to secure that right.
The problem with Yee’s proposal, though, is that it misses the mark: Rather than a ban on smoking and vaping — which has proved ineffective — we should direct our sights on eliminating their harmful byproduct, secondhand smoke. San Francisco has a golden opportunity to be the first jurisdiction in the country to ban secondhand smoke, and should not squander it by implementing legislation that is doomed to fail.
Think about electric vehicle technology and where it’s taking us: a world free from dangerous carbon emissions. With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order banning the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, California is on the cutting edge of ushering in a better future. Sure, we could try to eliminate emissions by banning driving, but that idea is ridiculous on its face. So, too, is the claim that we can end the secondhand smoke crisis by prohibiting smoking and vaping in one’s own home. As it is with vehicle emissions, technology is the answer to this problem.
It just so happens that tech companies like ours, Philter Labs, are offering and developing personal microfilters that allow people to vape while significantly reducing the smoke and smell that result. By engaging with technology and investing in research and development, governments can effectively ban secondhand smoke, acknowledging individuals’ right to make their own lifestyle choices while also protecting the essential human right to breathe clean air. This is the path that San Francisco should take instead. The city can spark a revolution in public health by targeting the harm, not the behavior.
What’s more, a ban on secondhand smoke is in line with San Francisco’s long-standing official policy favoring harm reduction. The city knows that campaigns based on shaming or judging people for their habits do not work, and that residents “are responsive to culturally competent, non-judgmental services, delivered in a manner that demonstrates respect for individual dignity, personal strength, and self-determination.” In a recent consumer survey, Philter found that the majority of smokers and vapers experience stigma, but against this backdrop, vaping is on the rise (even rates of cigarette smoking, which have been declining for decades, are ticking back up in the COVID era). Clearly, stigmatizing the behavior does not stop it.
Just this month, a study showed that a smoking ban in New York City public housing failed to reduce residents’ exposure to secondhand smoke. Advocates of the ban say that effectiveness is a matter of enforcement, but that is precisely the problem: It is exceedingly difficult to police what people do in their own homes without violating their basic rights. The proposed ban would be essentially unenforceable, and would do nothing to achieve its actual goal: reducing the harm of secondhand smoke.
One need only look at the New York failure to see what’s in store for San Francisco if it approves Yee’s proposal. That example also underscores an unpleasant but hugely important reality of bans like this: They put the burden of reform on tenants who are more likely to be low-income communities and people of color (property owners are exempt from Yee’s proposal).
Moreover, the legislation will make life more difficult for San Franciscans — cancer patients, wounded veterans, and others — who smoke and vape marijuana for pain management and mental well-being. Supporters of the measure say it carves out exceptions for those with medical marijuana cards, but many people who use the drug for this purpose do not have a card; the process to get one is laborious and difficult to navigate. The world looks at San Francisco as a progressive bastion, but this policy could not be more regressive.
The city and its residents would be much better served by a groundbreaking proposal to ban secondhand smoke citywide by a certain date, as the state has done with gas-powered vehicles. With the right focus and partnerships, technological innovators can make secondhand smoke a thing of the past. San Francisco can ill afford more failed drug policies. The Board of Supervisors should abandon stigmatizing, ineffective policies and plant the city’s flag firmly on the side of technological progress. They could make history, and they could save lives.
Christos Nicolaidis is co-founder and CEO of Philter Labs Inc.