The War on Drugs, San Francisco-Style

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had out-of-towners tell me they think San Francisco is a breathtakingly beautiful city — so why is it that City Hall hasn’t done more about baseball pitchers chewing tobacco at city ballparks? No, wait. I can tell you. I’ve never heard that. I have heard countless complaints from tourists and locals about homeless people sprawled on sidewalks, the stink of the city and the creepiness of walking downtown while navigating around urine puddles, feces and used hypodermic needles.

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Given those very real assaults on the city’s quality of life, Supervisor Mark Farrell’s plan to introduce an ordinance banning the use of chewing tobacco at every ballpark in town comes across as a veritable trivial pursuit.

Farrell admits that his proposed ban is groundbreaking, as tobacco chewers pose no health risk to others. Smoking foes have cited the health threat of secondhand smoke to justify smoking bans — but secondhand saliva?

A Farrell policy paper reports 3.3 percent of San Francisco high schoolers said they used smokeless tobacco in 2013. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco-chewing athletes make smokeless tobacco look attractive to kids. Farrell knows it. He chewed tobacco while playing baseball in college. There’s a national campaign, “Knock Tobacco Out of the Park,” with some baseball industry support. The minor leagues already ban smokeless tobacco, and since 2011, the major leagues have prohibited players from using said products during TV interviews and club appearances.

San Francisco has laws to ban behavior that is hazardous to public health and (unlike smokeless tobacco) degrades quality of life for others. If city constabularies cannot keep up with the demand of enforcing laws against public urination, camping in public spaces and shooting up illegal drugs, surely the supes should spare them from having to clamp down on chaw-chomping players.

Farrell’s ordinance qualifies as a nanny state law because a) like other City Hall busybody schemes, it targets a small group of people who do something politically unpopular, as in chew tobacco or drink too much soda, and b) unlike drug injectors and public defecators, practitioners tend to be law-abiding. In other words, Farrell and California Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who has a state bill to ban smokeless tobacco at ballparks, are picking on easy, law-abiding targets who cannot count on the powerful homeless lobby to safeguard their interests.

Governments should not use their heavy hand to outlaw behavior simply because elected officials can get away with it. Farrell says ballplayers who chew tobacco set a bad example. Does City Hall really want to sic law enforcement on citizens for setting a bad example? Where does that end?

San Francisco pioneered smoking bans, yet marijuana smoke seems to get a pass — even when it stokes secondhand smoke. I smell it often as I walk near the city’s many medical marijuana dispensaries, which prompted me to call a onetime marijuana advocate to get his thoughts. He agreed that no kind of secondhand smoke is good for people. And he has no love for tobacco; he blamed smoking for his mother’s death. But there are times when it seems the Bay Area is replacing Washington’s heavy-handed war on drugs with a local but likewise over-the-top war on tobacco.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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