This story was originally published June 10, 2013.
PORTLAND — At least smokers entering Portland’s city limits can still light up at the cemetery.
Evergreen Cemetery is one of the few designated public places where people can smoke a cigarette.
But finding other public places where it’s legal to smoke is rapidly becoming more difficult, as a new city ordinance – combined with state laws and company and university policies – has created a laundry list of places where it’s illegal to drag on a cigarette.
Portland is far from the only community where outdoor smoking is limited. South Portland, West-brook and Gorham also ban smoking in public parks, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Thirteen cities and towns in Maine and more than 800 municipalities across the United States have similar laws on the books, according to the foundation’s website.
Some say the new outdoor smoking restrictions go too far in inhibiting a legal activity, while proponents tout the health benefits of limiting smoking.
After the city approved the new restrictions last winter, Portland city workers are currently installing 90 “no smoking” signs in various parts of the city where smoking is now illegal, including most public parks and public squares. Two cadets working for the police department, as part of their duties, tell people to stop smoking in no-smoking areas. Those who flout the warnings face a $50 fine.
Cadet Ben Savage, patrolling Monument Square on Friday, said that enforcement is going well, and most people are heeding the new rules.
“People are just saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ And a lot of (nonsmokers) have thanked me because they don’t like breathing the smoke,” Savage said.
To avoid a lecture or a potential fine, smokers now have to ponder where they are standing before lighting up.
Here is a list of outdoor no-smoking areas in Portland:
Most public parks.
East End Beach.
Public squares, including Monument and Longfellow squares.
Within 20 feet of a trail, park, playground or athletic facility.
Outdoor cafes, and within 20 feet of outdoor cafes and business doorways.
On any Maine Medical Center property.
At the University of Southern Maine campuses.
More than 780 college campuses across the United States are 100 percent tobacco-free, according to the nonsmokers’ rights foundation.
“It’s gone too far,” said Rose Dawson, who was smoking a cigarette near Monument Square on Friday. “People are getting a little aggravated.”
“It’s a little ridiculous,” said Jordana Avital, a sophomore at USM who led an unsuccessful protest against a smoke-free campus. The USM campuses in Portland and Gorham went smoke-free in January.
Portland’s decision to limit outdoor smoking was rooted in protecting residents from secondhand smoke, said Bethany Sanborn, a program manager with Portland’s public health division.
“It really is about the smoke and not the smoker,” Sanborn said. “Even limited exposure can be harmful.”
Sanborn pointed to a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General report that concluded that there was “no risk-free” exposure to secondhand smoke.
“We take that statement very seriously,” Sanborn said.
But just how risky is secondhand smoke in the great outdoors?
Neil Klepeis, a Stanford University professor who has been studying the effects of outdoor secondhand smoke, said there can be high concentrations of smoke for a few seconds, even if a smoker is standing some distance away, depending on wind conditions.
“It’s not something that people are inventing. It’s not imaginary,” Klepeis said.
But Klepeis said no one has measured the long-term risks of secondhand smoke outdoors. He said there is obviously less risk in a relatively empty park where one or two people are smoking, versus smoking at a fairground where many smokers have gathered. Klepeis said that there are other good reasons to ban smoking in outdoor areas, such as preventing cigarette butt litter, the risk of children eating or licking cigarette butts, and the enjoyment of public spaces.
“We don’t have the right to pollute someone else’s air,” Klepeis said.
Judie O’Malley, a spokeswoman for USM, said banning smoking outdoors is not just about secondhand smoke concerns, but also the health of students and employees.
“We’re not the secret police,” O’Malley said. “We simply don’t want them to exercise their habit on our property.”
Avital said, however, that she pays money to go to school and live on campus but has to walk 15 minutes off campus to legally smoke.
“It’s very impractical,” Avital said.
Michael McFadden, a spokesman with Citizens’ Freedom Alliance, a smokers’ rights organization, said that smokers are becoming a stigmatized group.
“It’s like smokers have become the dirty people, and we don’t want to see them,” McFadden said, describing the way nonsmokers often characterize smokers. “If they want to (smoke), they have to do it behind the Dumpster. They shouldn’t be around the good people.
“It’s gone way overboard.”
No-smoking laws have expanded over the past 30 to 35 years, starting with elevators, airplanes and workplaces, and then growing to include restaurants, bars and outdoor cafes. Now, no-smoking laws are moving into new spaces with outdoor bans.
O’Malley said that she believes the bans could help further reduce the rate of smoking in general.
“It’s for the greater good of the world,” O’Malley said.
The number of smokers has declined over the decades, and with it, smokers’ clout in influencing public policy. There was no organized opposition to Portland’s new restrictions.
More than 40 percent of adults smoked in the 1960s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. That has declined to about 20 percent in recent years. With 21 percent of its population smoking, Maine is close to the U.S. average, according to the Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Maine website.
Klepeis said he often speaks at public hearings in California to limit places where people can smoke, and while the non-smokers usually come out in force, the “smokers are nowhere to be seen.”
McFadden agrees that smokers are resigned to the fact that more restrictions on their ability to light up are inevitable.
“Nobody likes to be the one standing in front of the bandwagon, and saying, ‘Stop!’ ” McFadden said.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: [email protected]