June 13, 2013

Maine smoking bans a drag, or a breath of fresh air?

Smokers are feeling squeezed by Portland's new law adding outdoor spots to the list of secondhand-smoke-free zones.

By JOE LAWLOR

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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.

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