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.

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