County Fights Tobacco Use by Throwing Away Money on ‘Smart Mobs’

This video of a “smart mob” designed to discourage smoking tobacco, put on by nonprofit Working Partnership USA, was funded with county taxpayer dollars.

Flash mobs are so 2011. But apparently, that’s how the county Board of Supervisors decided to spend leftover money at the end of last year, which, if memory serves, was 2012. But, wait, these weren’t just any flash mobs—they were “smart mobs.”

At its last meeting of 2012, the county Board unanimously approved a $40,000 increase in its partnership with nonprofit Working Partnerships USA. The additional funds were retroactively approved to continue an anti-smoking initiative through March 18, 2013.

As you may have already seen in the video at the top of this post, this meant county funds went toward these acoustic guitars weeping at Santana Row while two-dozen Elaine Benes dancers shouted out the instructive lyrics, “Don’t smoke so close to me.” That sizzle you hear is the Police putting out a cigarette in Sting’s eye.

In April 2012, the city of San Jose banned outdoor smoking in dining areas, service lines and common areas for apartments and condos. But as county staff told the Board, “In order to make the ordinance effective in reducing exposure to second-hand smoke in San Jose it is necessary to educate smokers about compliance with the law and non-smokers about their rights in these smoke free environments.”

With $40,000 just lying around, the county then proposed an “expansion of services under the new agreement with Working Partnerships USA,” which would “reach at least 30,000 smoking and non-smoking residents through performance art (skits and smart mobs).” The press release later notes that these traveling “smart mob”-sters and men would reach 300,000 people.

Regardless if its 30,000 people of ten times that count, the number of YouTube views (30 as of this posting) and people in the crowd (30 if they were lucky) makes the outreach claims less than convincing. If the county really wanted to spread the word, it could have done so for less than 5 percent of the cost by buying several ads in Metro/San Jose Inside.

Curiously, the date that this “smart mob” took place was March 17, 2013—just a day before the funds had to be used. So exactly how much money went into that last-minute St. Paddy’s Day singalong?

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.


  1. I was wondering… who pays for all the billboards and VTA bus advertisements that announce San Jose is smoke free?  It’s not free, and we have core services to fund.

  2. I’ve been to Santana Row several times.  I’m surprised by how many people I’ve seen smoking there – some are cigar smokers who sit in the beautiful outdoor seating areas, and the smell of cigar and cigarette smoke in those areas makes it unwelcome for non-smokers.  Note that there is a tobacco products store there – and the odor of cigar smoke flows out of that building because they have a smoking lounge in the store.  If the County Supervisors really want to do something about getting people to stop smoking, how about just banning smoking completely at Santana Row, including outdoors?

  3. What an embarrassment.  As if having Gluttonous George Shirakawa on the board isn’t shame enough.  I wish I could opt out of paying taxes to the county until these fools get their acts together!

  4. I have to thank you for this story, Josh, even though I realize your intent was to trash Working Partnerships’ legitimate work to improve health in our community by encouraging compliance with San Jose’s outdoor smoking ordinance, which bans smoking in outdoor dining areas among other places.

    The piece above leaves the impression that we wasted $40,000 of county money for two St. Patrick’s Day smart mobs seen by only a handful of people.

    But St. Patrick’s Day was merely the public unveiling of Working Partnerships’ year-long anti-tobacco education project that will also include videos, radio skits in multiple languages, a student art contest, the production of posters and school appearances. In the course of this project we will be working with many young volunteers, other nonprofits, government agencies and apartment and condominium complexes.

    By the end of the year we intend – as we agreed with our funders – that 300,000 people become aware of the outdoor smoking ordinance by direct exposure to our activities or media coverage of them. So the people who read last week’s “We Wuz Mobbed” item about our smart mobs in Sal Pizarro’s column in the Mercury News count toward that total. Here’s a link:

    And even though San Jose Inside wasn’t trying to help educate the public about the outdoor smoking ordinance, you helped us toward our goal with a handful of readers, too.

    For those who would like to see videos of the smart mobs Josh wrote about, they’re on our home page at

    • If this is your definition of “legitimate work”, I’d hate to know what you consider wasteful spending.

      This was passed unanimously?  Can Metro ask Wasserman why he voted for this.  He is a Republican afterall and you’d expect better from him.  Gotta think that this will be a hit piece brochure against anyone running for reelection.

      • There are two important aspects of our project that make this “legitimate work,” Mod Squad.

        The first is that one of Working Partnerships’ major focus areas is improving community health, which is also a county responsibility. So we work together on projects to do that, among them discouraging outdoor smoking, which subjects non-smokers to the hazards of second-hand smoke.

        The second is that Working Partnerships, the county and the city of San Jose all realize that even though there is now a city ordinance, adopted at the county’s urging, which bans outdoor smoking in certain areas, enforcement is not going to be a priority of the police.

        So to be effective in protecting public health, the ordinance must be publicized and voluntary compliance encouraged, which is what our project does. By working with us on this project, achieving that goal with 300,000 people costs the county less than half the annual salary of one cop.

  5. The anti-tobacco campaign has worked in this valley.  Smart-mobs may seem like an easy target, but if you are trying to get your message to kids—they work.  This blog just got them a few more hits and the sharing of this goes from device to device.

    In working partnerships defense, politics aside, the organization has been nothing but a powerful voice for those who need it most.  Minimum wage, healthy families, kids health insurance, living wage, anti-smoking campaigns, economic development, analysis of wealth in our valley—all of these are substantively positive.

    Personally, I hate smoke and anything we can do to rid ourselves of the second-hand menace is ok by me.

        • Actually I was responding to your assertion that smart-mobs are an effective means of reaching kids, but since you brought it up,  I’ll repeat what I asked Jody Meacham (above):

          The County’s agreement with Working Partnerships USA was for a period from Oct. 18, 2012 through March 18, 2013.  What does the March 18, 2013 end date mean?  I asked if Working Patnerships would be applying for an award for the coming year, 2014?  Or if they will use the almost $40k, that he said has not yet been spent, to fund their activities in 2014?

    • You know what also works?  Parents actually parenting. 

      The cops will put second hand smoke violators as a low priority and that justifies wasting tax dollars on bad performance art.  BTW this is a bad example of a flash mob because they are spontaneous in how they start and don’t set up in front of a stage and just wear matching tshirts with acoustic accompaniment. 

      When smoking was banned in restaurants tax dollars weren’t wasted to have mariachis serenade the perils of smoking.  The restaurants enforced the new code and people caught on.  Outdoor eating spaces would have the same learning curve. 

      I appreciate Josh’s reporting this because now I can keep track of the people who voted to fund this and make sure I exercise my right to not vote for them in the future.  Wasting money has to stop!

      • Aware D5,

        OMG! A voice of reason! Parenting your children correctly! What a novel thought!

        I’m not going to vote for any one who thinks they can decide what is and isn’t best for me either. This is getting ridiculous.

        We need to use tax payer dollars for public safety, housing for the elderly, disabled, and poor. We need to provide core services to our tax payers and stop wasting money on dumb things like this. We also need to stop taxing the hell out of people so we can get services for things we’re already supposed to be receiving.

        Is everyone a sleep out there? Hello!

  6. My mother died from lung cancer directly related to her cigarette smoking. The tobacco companies spend billions of dollars marketing cigarettes to us and our children every year.  We, the public, through our government, can never come close to even matching 1% of these funds to educate the public about the ill effects of tobacco smoke.

    Bravo to Working Partnerships and all the other government and nonprofit organizations who use “our resources” to be creative in educating us “the public” to not become addicted to tobacco in any of its forms.

    If you don’t believe that secondhand smoke is a public health problem, then check out this website and get the facts:

    • Tobacco use is legal in the USA (for adults).  If you wish to make it illegal, you’re free to waste your time, I guess.  “Second-hand smoke” is a ludicrous canard within the context of a legal regime that already bans smoking at virtually all public indoor venues.  Anyone with a basic understanding of physical reality understands that some guy smoking a cigarette on a park bench does not affect my health (or yours) in the slightest.

  7. This is in the category of the $10,000 the government pays for toilet seats.

    We seem to get sidetracked by the people arguing that fighting smoking is a good thing.  The issue isn’t whether or not fighting smoking is a good thing.  No one would argue that the government shouldn’t be buying toilet seats.  The issue is how much is too much for a toilet seat.

    My son’s high school did a “flash mob” video last year.  I googled “high school flash mob”.  I got almost 5 million results. If so many of these kids can do these things for little or no money, a sensible person would wonder why it costs $40,000 for an anti-smoking flash mob.

    Here’s the query:

    • S Randall, as you’ll see from my response above, the impression created by this story that the county spent $40,000 for an anti-smoking flash mob is incorrect.

        • Thanks for the question, S Randall. I’m not trying to be evasive, but by the time the project is over, the cost of one video will probably work out around few hundred bucks, based on the pro-rated cost of a couple of Flip cameras and the staff time spent in finding, recruiting and rehearsing volunteer participants, etc.

          It’s sort of like figuring out how much it costs to go to a Giants game. If that’s the first trip you take in your new $30,000 car and you die after you get home, it costs $30,000 plus tickets and gas. But you don’t buy a car to take one trip, and we didn’t take on this tobacco project to do one video. We’ll be doing all the things I mentioned in my original response over the course of many months.

        • I understand that the funding period ended March 18, 2013.  If that’s the case, then Josh Koehn’s assumption that that video was all there was to show for that $40k is understandable.

          What does the March 18, 2013 end date mean?  Will you be applying for an award for the coming year, 2014?  Or will you use the almost $40k that you say hasn’t been spent yet to fund your activities in 2014?

    • The only person who said this educational action cost $40K is the article’s author, Josh Koehn.  The Working Partnership representative responded to Mr. Koehn’s accusation with the facts.

      I must say I agree with Mr. Robinson, Working Partnerships health initiatives have benefited many, many thousands of county residents over the years. They are one of the true gems among nonprofit organizations in this valley. We are lucky to have them here.

  8. A little history and histrionics—when serving with Councilman Jerry Estruth we passed the first smoking section ban.  1/3 of all restaurants were to be for nonsmoking patrons—circa 1983.

    The howling of the “over-regulation” crowd was crazy.  Their businesses would go bankrupt.  Nobody recognized that only 3 of their customers smoked and were ruining business. 

    Then the ban in restaurants came full.  Oh, the howling continued.  Guess what, business increased in every jurisdiction that passed a ban.  The first to notice was a small hamburger company—McDonalds—which banned smoking in their restaurants nationwide.
    Business boomed.

    Soon we were banning it in bars.  Oh no, not bars.  The mom and pop lush holes for the chronically alcoholic could not withstand a no smoking ban.  Guess what, again business increased as nonsmokers came into their joints. 

    Regulation helped businesses, reduced health risks and who could imagine today walking in to a restaurant—even in Italy—that allowed smoking.  Not I. 

    That said, the cost of making a cigarette is about 2 cents, even with heavy taxes the addiction is so pure many people continue to die—and the Mad Men continue to advertise to our youth.  Tobacco products usually let you live until you procreate then take away the user from their children at too early an age.

    But the market is still there.  Interestingly China encouraged tobacco use as a way to reduce their population—until they recently realized their government run healthcare system was being over-run with patients.  Seems tobacco users have a long, slow death.

    So now even China is waging a war on tobacco.  Now if they could just do something about the pollution in Bejing.

      • Actually, you are partly wrong.  It was done with a tax on tobacco that went to the County—the same money WP is not utilizing in its campaign.  Yes, the people voted to tax tobacco with a portion of the funds going to government to eradicate the product.

        Seems like they know what they are doing.

    • “Soon we were banning it in bars.  Oh no, not bars.  The mom and pop lush holes for the chronically alcoholic could not withstand a no smoking ban.”

      This is a pretty good look into the mind of the Bloombergesque anti-smoking enthusiast ie., a self-righteous boor who would denude this society of anything fun, and insist we all eat broccoli three times per day, because he or she imagines that being “healthy” is some sort of new moral code that must be enforced upon the public.  No thank you.

  9. I’m really getting tired of the ban this ban that trend I see in the US today. Don’t drink, eat, this or that. Don’t do this or that. Don’t say this, but you can say that. You’re gay so you can’t get married like the rest of us.

    What the hell is happening to our freedoms/rights?

    Who put these people in charge of deciding what is right and what is wrong for the whole?

    Why are our tax payer dollars being used to ban any thing pertaining to our personal choices and rights?

    Wake up people and smell the coffee! Or is that banned too?

    • I don’t want to breathe tobacco smoke.  The air belongs to everyone that breathes it, not just to the people that insist on polluting it for their own purposes.

      As far as unhealthy food, I think people should be free to buy as much soda and french fries as they want.  It should also be the right of health insurance companies to charge overweight people more for insurance too.  Like they do for smokers.

      • If people can operate motor vehicles within the city limits, then I can smoke a cigarette on a public street.  I guarantee you that the former causes something on the order of literally 1,000 times more damage to the lungs of the people of San Jose than second-hand smoke in the outdoors ever does.

    • Nobody has banned tobacco.  They have banned second hand smoke.  The right to breathe supersedes the right to smoke.

      Limiting quantities of soda sold does not ban soda or even limit the amount one can consume.

      I’m with you, but I would get rid of the ban on marijuana—though I would regulate its use so people do not have to deal with second hand smoke.  Other drugs should be legal and taxed. 

      The coffee will never be banned, but if the smell becomes a health hazard.  Watch out.

  10. I looked at the Articles of Incorporation of Silicon Valley Labor-Community Institute, that was amended on Oct. 5, 1995 to change its name to Working Partnerships USA.  Here’s Article II b (emphasis is mine)

    The general purposes and powers are to have and exercise all rights and powers conferred on nonprofit public benefit corporations under the laws of California, provided, however, that this corporation shall not, except to an insubstantial degree, engage in any activities or exercise any powers that are not in furtherance of the primary purposes of this corporation.

    The other interesting thing is that their 2010 Form 990 filing, Schedule O says:


    Normally conflict of interest policies apply to the board of directors too.

  11. S Randall, and Rich,

    There are a lot of things I don’t want to do either, like going without public safety and core services while these do gooders use my tax dollars to push their own agendas.

    You shouldn’t have to breathe in smoke, just like I hate toxic fumes from cars, factories, women/men who use too much after shave or perfume!

    I don’t like drunks and drug addicts either, but funds to help them are quickly disappearing thanks to hair brained expenditures like these.

    You two are being myopic. The point I’m trying to make is that my personal choices should NOT be governed by other people, nor should yours.

    If you hate cigarette or cigar smoke, walk a way from it, but don’t try to mandate what people do in their own homes, cars,yards, and outdoors.

    Stop and look at the many attempts that are being made to mold you into something someone else thinks you should be, do or say.

    And Josh is correct, let’s STOP side stepping the REAL issue here. I want to know more about these groups involvement in using funds incorrectly. Let’s ban giving money to these groups, and stop funding, and electing them into office.

  12. Allowing people the freedom to make their own decisions, including bad ones, is exactly how people learn to exercise good judgement. Protecting people from making their own choices has resulted in a nation of ninnies who can’t figure out how to live in the world- instead insisting on new laws and regulations to make the world conform to their own deficiencies.

    And what would have been wrong with restaurants and bars deciding for themselves whether to allow smoking? If individuals didn’t want to breathe secondhand smoke they would have been free not to go to restaurants that allowed smoking.
    For a group of people who are always telling us to “celebrate diversity”, these progressives sure spend a lot of their effort squashing it.

      • In the first place, why don’t you just do everyone, including me, the courtesy of stating your own opinion in your own words instead of posting a link to some article that captured your interest?
        Second, I’m not moving to China anytime soon. Why bother? China’s moving to me.
        And third, I didn’t read your bbc article but all I can tell you is that the people of the United States are not the people of China. I’d like to think that we can do better.
        I don’t know if you have any strong feelings about what it is that constitutes a nation- perhaps you believe that every nation is defined simply by it’s system of government. I would dispute that notion. I think a nation is defined by it’s people. And I think the people of America could and would do better if they were given from a young age the very liberating message that their own life is their’s to live. Not their neighbor’s. Not their “village’s”. Not their Government’s.

        • I did state my opinion.  The link is a story about all the dead, diseased animals people are throwing into the rivers that supply drinking water to people in China.

          I do think that we have to work to keep a balance, but I believe that it is the role of laws and government to protect people from others.  What’s happening in China is what you get when people are free to do whatever they want.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *