Smoke-Free Downtown Also Proposed
-by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Effective imminently: No smoking in city parks. Effective soon? No smoking in downtown Montpelier. The details: To be determined.
City councilors voted unanimously on May 13 to support the motion made by outgoing City Council member Thierry Guerlain and seconded by Jessica Edgerly Walsh to eliminate tobacco smoking in city parks. “I move we designate to make our city parks smoke-free zones as recommended (by the Central Vermont New Directions Coalition). I would also like to recommend that we continue to figure out how to make, and where should we make, downtown Montpelier a smoke-free environment.”
Guerlain’s motion followed a lengthy presentation and ensuing discussion spearheaded by Ann Gilbert, director of the Central Vermont New Directions Coalition, and Ginny Burley, prevention specialist.
The parks smoking ban cannot be implemented until a city staff member writes up a draft ordinance and presents it to the council. Then, the council must hold two public hearings followed by two council votes, according to Mayor John Hollar in an email to The Bridge. “Assuming the council gives its approval, I would expect it to take effect later this summer,” Hollar wrote.
This won’t be the first local park to get a smoking ban this year, said Gilbert in a telephone conversation with The Bridge. The Wrightsville Reservoir board of directors voted to ban smoking on the beach, fields and parks this coming year, Gilbert said. Smokers who go to Wrightsville, in Middlesex, will still be allowed to smoke in the parking lot. Last year the board of directors designated a nonsmoking section and a smoking section of the beach, “but the wind blows and it doesn’t matter,” Gilbert said, adding that parks in Barre have also gone smoke-free.
After seconding Guerlain’s motion to ban smoking in the parks, Edgerly Walsh suggested having the pedestrian committee work on the details of a downtown smoking ban. Her recommendation came after discussion about the complications of pushing smokers out of the city’s nerve center that culminates at the intersection of State and Main streets.
Gilbert said that the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington banned smoking five months ago, and that ban has been successful during the day, but largely ignored at night. During the day smokers cluster on the borders in front of side-street businesses, which has prompted some Burlington merchants to ask for a citywide ban so they aren’t adversely affected.
Several councilors brought up additional ideas and concerns. Guerlain said he received a call from a constituent who mentioned a smoking-friendly spot behind Montpelier Pharmacy and Guitar Sam at the edges of the municipal parking lot. Would smoking be banned in parking lots, Guerlain asked. Burley said it is up to the council; however, the council needs to figure out where people will be allowed to puff a butt.
“I think if we are going to do this, it would make sense to extend it to all of these lots back here (gesturing toward the back of City Hall), otherwise the back side is going to be all smokers,” Guerlain said.
Council member Justin Turcotte said he doesn’t want to see young people pick up an addictive habit, but he is worried about how to support existing smokers. “If we are going to be banning smoking, if we take something away, what can we give smokers in return?” he said. Gilbert said smokers can get free smoking cessation supplies and counseling from an organization called 802 Quits.
Turcotte also echoed a recurring question: If smokers can’t smoke downtown, just where can they smoke? “I want to be compassionate and thoughtful to people who are struggling with addiction and may not be ready to try to quit yet. … They are part of our community, whether what they are doing is right or not, we don’t want to make them feel as if they are being pushed further and further away,” Turcotte said.
Council member Anne Watson also expressed concern about where smokers will be allowed to smoke. She suggested perhaps a smoking ban from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. “I think about the crew that might be in front of Charlie-O’s or Three Penny … and we are pushing people to back alleys or to parking lots. Do we really want that?” she said. “I think at night it might be better to have those people on those main streets.” Watson also said she would like input from Washington County Mental Health.
“What is the goal of such a ban?” Hollar said. Does the city want to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke, or “are we trying to discourage smokers from smoking? What does downtown have to do with it other than making it difficult for people?” Hollar said he spends a lot of time downtown and has not suffered a secondhand smoke problem.
Council member Dona Bate said that a group clusters at an entryway in front of Bagitos (on Main Street), creating a cloud of smoke at the door and leaving behind cigarette butts. The area in front of McGillicuddy’s is also marred by secondhand smoke and cigarette litter. “To me, it is about public health as well as cleanliness,” Bate said.
Edgerly Walsh said, after talking with a friend following the last discussion of a downtown smoking ban, she has concluded smokers will adjust to the change. In addition, a group of people who smoke on the bridge across from the farmer’s market creates an uninviting environment.
Council member Tom Golonka said he was concerned a downtown smoking ban might prevent Canadian tourists from visiting Montpelier.
A wide array of concerns emerged with social, medical, visual and economic ramifications. Turcotte said he thinks the council should take it slow on formulating a plan to allow time to observe how other communities, such as Burlington, fare with the complexities of a smoking prohibition.