Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Portland (Maine) to Consider Banning Outdoor Smoking along Back Cove and Promenades

The Portland (Maine) City Council will tonight discuss a proposal to ban smoking outdoors on recreational trails along the city's Back Cove and along the Eastern and Western Promenades (these areas make up the bulk of Portland's scenic waterfront areas). Smoking has been eliminated in virtually all indoor workplaces in Maine, including all restaurants and bars.

According to City Councilor Peter O'Donnell, who is sponsoring the measure: "It makes no sense trying to support and encourage working the cardiovascular system where people are smoking and putting carcinogens into the air." O'Donnell is presumably referring to the many runners who use the trails along Back Cove.

The article announcing tonight's hearing opens by explaining what apparently prompted the concern that led to tonight's proposal: "Portland City Councilor Peter O'Donnell remembers inhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke as he jogged the Eastern Promenade on a Sunday morning. 'A guy was standing there,' O'Donnell said, 'a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.'"

The Rest of the Story

As anyone familiar with my scientific research knows, I have been a strong advocate for smoke-free workplace policies. However, there is a place where I think you have to draw the line. And this proposal is certainly beyond that line.

There is simply no credible evidence I am aware of that exposure to secondhand smoke outdoors in the kind of open setting being considered here is a threat to health, and it is certainly not a substantial enough threat to warrant the government's use of its police powers to ban smoking along the huge area encompassed by these outdoor trails.

I simply don't share the concern that some runners inhaling a few whiffs of smoke as they pass by is a substantial public health problem. And so what if a guy was standing on the Eastern promenade holding a cigarette in one hand and a styrofoam cup of coffee in the other? The environmental health impact of styrofoam is probably a greater concern than anyone suffering substantial health effects because this guy was considerate enough to smoke outside.

I actually have a vested interest in seeing the City Council pass this measure. I'll be running along Back Cove in two weeks in the Maine Half-Marathon. But you know what? I'll welcome any smokers who want to cheer me on and if my training has done any good, I'll be blowing past the crowd so quickly that I won't even be inhaling the smoke (that's if you consider a 12-minute mile to be "blowing past the crowd").

The shame of this isn't just that I think regulating smoking outdoors in an open setting such as this one is unjustified. I think the very proposal undermines the whole anti-smoking movement. It gives the public the impression that this is all about paternalism and moralizing about smoking, rather than about addressing a legitimate and substantial public health problem with reasonable and scientifically justified measures.

I know there will be anti-smoking advocates who disagree with me, but I think one has to define a position based on principle and on reasonable scientific evidence. And I just don't see any public health principle or any credible scientific evidence that supports this proposal.


Martha Hoverson said...

That is a very interesting response to the proposal!
I think in Maine we are spoiled beyond belief because non-smokers really don't smell much smoke at all. Traveling to other states this year, I realized I had forgotten how really smoke-free the public environment is in Portland as compared to the rest of the world. And as much as I like it that way, I agree with your conclusion that this is taking it the idea too far.

Michael J. McFadden said...

A 12 minute mile Mike? Heck, I rack up 6 minute miles all the time! Of course I *do* ride a bicycle... :>

More seriously though... the Maine situation is quite clear: the main thrust behind smoking bans, indoors, outdoors, or under the ocean, has never been true concern about the "threat" of secondary smoke except for a minority of Antismokers.

That "threat" is simply used as a tool to promote Denormalization of smokers and thereby reduce the incidence of smoking. The extension to outdoor areas, the cruel manipulation of fear to encourage neighbors into lawsuits over molecules of smoke smells from next door apartments, the callous insanity of removing children from loving foster parents if the parents smoke in a car 23 hours before giving their child a ride somewhere... these all point to the true motivation... and it's not "protecting the health of the workers" (or the joggers!)

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"

Bill Godshall said...


Based upon your logic, laws that currently prohibit people from blasting music at 120 decibels, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, injecting heroin, snorting cocaine, urinating, defacating, masturbating, or groping women would also be legal activity on outdoor public property, as anyone who engages in those activities isn't posing a significant public health threat.

And yet, nearly all of those activities (and perhaps all of them) have already been banned on publicly owned outdoor property,
and many have been banned even in the privacy of one's own home.

Also, just because inhaling smoke from one cigarette may not represent a public health hazard
(unless you're asthmatic), inhaling smoke from lots of cigarettes can.

Similarly, just as one turd or piss may not represent a public health hazard, lots of turds and pisses can (just look at New Orleans).

Michael Siegel said...

There are several justifications for invoking the state's police powers to ban certain activities in public spaces - one is to protect the public's health, but the others are to protect the public safety and welfare.

So although one might argue that someone using alcohol or drugs in these public areas isn't harming others' health, it can certainly be considered a threat to the public safety and welfare. For that reason, banning those activities are justified.

So I would support the idea of banning smoking in these public outdoor areas not only if it would protect the public's health, but also if it would protect the public's safety or welfare. But I don't see any justification under those grounds either.

Bill Godshall said...

On what evidence do you base your assertion that the consumption of alcohol and certain drugs (i.e. those that have been banned by Congress) pose a threat to public safety and welfare, but that burning cigarettes poses no threat to public safety or welfare?

Burning cigarettes are the leading cause of fire and burn deaths in America, one of the leading causes of outdoor wildfires, and by far the leading cause of litter on public property. Are those not threats to public safety or welfare?

Being several feet downwind of someone burning a cigarette also results in far more involuntary exposure to poisoinous chemicals than being several feet downwind rom someone who is drinking a beer, snorting cocaine, or injecting heroin.

Why do you consider activities that don't harm other people to be threats to public safety and welfare, while claiming an activity that clearly poses harm to others poses no threat to public safety or welfare?

A review of the history of drug prohibition laws reveals that many drugs were banned due to racism (e.g. opium - racism against Chinese, cocaine - racism against blacks, marijuana - racism against Mexicans). And it was hatred of Germans at the end of WWI that gave the necessary political impetus for prohibition of alcohol in America (as most American breweries were owned by people of German descent.

Of course, drug prohibitionists continue with historical revisionism and other lies in claiming that those substances were banned (and that increasingly punitive sanctions were imposed against violators) because those substances posed a threat to public safety and welfare.

My point is that on this issue (i.e. banning smoking on public property) and others (e.g. employer hiring and firing policies) you continue maintaining (without providing any evidence) that already illegal activites are fully justified, but that far less onerous restrictions on smoking aren't justified.

Michael Siegel said...

I think the evidence that consumption of alcohol and certain drugs may endanger public safety is that they cause intoxication, which can and does lead to violent and disorderly behavior. Smoking cigarettes does not lead to intoxication, nor violent and disorderly behavior. So I think that's a good reason why it may be justified to disallow alcohol and drug use while allowing smoking on outdoor public property (assuming that we are talking about an open space).

The fact that drug use is illegal is certainly another justification for disallowing it on public property. Most likely, special regulations are not necessary to disallow it. It's already illegal so presumably anyone using illicit drugs on public property could be arrested anyway.

The most problematic behavior you mention is I think alcohol use, because while it may lead to intoxication, it does not necessarily do that. The problem is that it would be awkward and perhaps unenforceable for the state to pass a law limiting the quantity of alcohol that one might legally drink on public property. Thus, it seems not unreasonable to simply disallow alcohol use if there is a concern about the public's safety and welfare.

As far as the issue of cigarettes and litter, I have no problem with interventions to prevent litter. But that is clearly not the reason why the Portland City Council is intervening here. And if it were, one would think that they would also want to address other sources of litter as well.

So in summary I believe that the major factor here is that alcohol and drug use cause intoxication and therefore unsafe behavior, while cigarette smoking does not.