by John Hollar, Mayor, City of Montpelier-
The Montpelier City Council has been asked to adopt a ban on smoking in our downtown. Having spent a large portion of my career working on anti-tobacco causes, my bias on this issue is to support all reasonable steps to discourage smoking and protect nonsmokers.
As a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., I drafted legislation requiring warning labels on smokeless tobacco products. In Vermont, I have represented clients in pushing successfully for a ban on smoking in bars and an increase in the tobacco tax. These measures have had a significant impact in discouraging tobacco use and protecting individuals from the dangers of secondhand smoke.
The damage to our society from smoking is enormous and must be considered as part of any debate on anti-smoking measures. According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year. More than 10 times as many Americans have died prematurely from smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States.
Given those grim statistics, I believe we need to take all reasonable steps to prevent smoking. The question before the City Council is whether a ban on smoking in downtown Montpelier is a reasonable response given the dangers of tobacco — both to smokers and those who are exposed to secondhand smoke.
If the goal of a ban is to discourage smoking, limiting the ban to our downtown area seems arbitrary. It would likely have a significant effect on the smoking habits of only those individuals who live or work in downtown. Most of our residents both live and work outside of the downtown area. A ban that has a major impact on a small slice of our residents, employees and visitors, while not impacting the smoking habits of most residents, seems to miss the mark.
Advocates of a ban have also argued that it is needed to protect nonsmokers from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. I strongly believe in the rights of nonsmokers to be protected from exposure to tobacco smoke, but I question whether secondhand smoke exists at harmful levels in our downtown area. My experience may not be typical, but I have not experienced any significant exposure to secondhand smoke while working, shopping or socializing in downtown Montpelier after the passage of the ban on smoking in bars.
We need to balance any health benefits from a ban on downtown smoking with the potential impact on our merchants. While the behavior of most smoking consumers could be unaffected by a ban, there may be some — particularly those who enjoy our thriving downtown nightlife — who would choose to go elsewhere. That would be a very unfortunate side effect of a well-intentioned policy.
Given the questions about health gains from a ban on downtown smoking and the adverse impact it might have on the vitality of our downtown, I believe we should proceed with caution before adopting such an ordinance.
The City Council will be considering this issue at its June 10 meeting. I encourage anyone with an interest in this issue to share their thoughts with the council.