Gazing down Church Street, Brian Sisco takes a drag off a Marlboro and ponders a city proposal that would snuff out his regular smoke breaks.
“How far can the government go?” asks Sisco, a 25-year-old Burlington resident who works at his father’s store, Designers’ Circle Jewelers. “I realize children and families come here, but I’m not blowing smoke in babies’ faces.”
Sisco is reacting to news that the Burlington City Council is considering banning smoking in public parks, beaches and on the Church Street Marketplace. City Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) is backing the ordinance and hopes it will pass by spring.
If approved, Burlington would join a growing list of U.S. cities that have expanded smoking prohibitions beyond the confines of bars and restaurants — where it was banned to protect workers indoors from harmful secondhand smoke — and into outdoor gathering places.
Burlington already has a reputation as one of America’s healthiest cities, and Paul sees a partial outdoor smoking ban as a way to build on that image.
“What you do in your own home is for you to decide,” says Paul, an ex-smoker who went cold turkey when she became pregnant 16 years ago.
“When you are in a public gathering place with children who may have a health condition, that is more the public domain,” she adds. “I heard from parents [who] have kids with asthma and from people who feel that, environmentally, we need to stop outdoor smoking.”
Many key details haven’t been hashed out. How much would fines be? Would smokers get designated areas to puff, maybe just off the Marketplace? Does the Burlington Police Department have enough officers to enforce such a ban?
Burlington’s police chief, Michael Schirling, says he has the personnel, but it would not be a top priority for the department, and says cops would rather “educate” violators than fine them.
“You may get a ticket, but I envision the bulk of our role being educational, as it is with a bunch of other low-level things,” Schirling says. That means smoking beach bums are more likely to get a verbal warning than a ticket.
As “nuisance offenses” go, police are more focused on in tackling noise violations, Schirling says.
Paul suspects city councilors and the public will have plenty to say about it as the ordinance moves through the public hearing and committee processes over the coming months.
Democrats on the city council pushed a similar ban two years ago, but the proposal went down in flames on a party-line vote. Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1), who sponsored that smoking ban, says he expects council Democrats would be supportive of the ban again this time around.
“We’re constantly weighing personal freedoms and societal freedoms,” Adrian says. “People who want to smoke pot in their house, I think it should be legal. But once you start impacting others,” that’s a different story, he says.
Two years ago, Church Street business owners were evenly split on the smoking ban, according to Ron Redmond, director of the Church Street Marketplace. Redmond hasn’t surveyed shop owners since then, but guesses they would be similarly divided now.
“There are some merchants who like the idea of banning smoking because it reduces instances of bad behavior on the street,” says Redmond. “Some don’t like smoking for health reasons. Some are concerned that banning smoking will reduce business.”
Burlington’s proposed smoking ban comes on the heels of a new national study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows smoking rates up for the first time in 15 years — from 19.8 percent to 20.6 percent — despite a series of tax hikes on cigarettes.
That prompted a call to arms in a media statement from the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: “Elected officials at all levels must redouble efforts to implement scientifically proven strategies that prevent kids from smoking, help smokers quit and protect everyone from secondhand smoke.”
The same study showed 16.8 percent of Vermont adults identified themselves as smokers in 2008.
Brian Sisco is among them. He believes that smoking in public is a God-given right and that government has no business regulating it.
“What are they going to do next,” Sisco wonders aloud, “make tobacco illegal?”