Long after the city of Keene banned smoking in restaurants and bars, the City Council is faced with a request to extend that action to Main Street downtown — outdoors.
The request comes from a city resident who notes seeing many cigarette butts on the ground downtown. She asserts a ban would benefit the city’s health, economics and aesthetics.
While we sympathize with her motivation, it’s an idea the council ought to turn down.
The merits of smoking vs. not smoking need not be debated here; smoking is a poor choice, expensive, annoying and harmful not only to those who engage in it but also to anyone else forced to breathe in the noxious fumes. It is, however, a legal habit enjoyed by many. We have written often about the dangers of smoking, particularly among teens, and would be happy to see more people quit and fewer take up the habit.
That said, the downsides of smoking outdoors are, in a general public sense, few, and can be dealt with in ways that fall short of ordering people not to do something state law otherwise allows.
But wait! Isn’t that exactly what the council did 20 years ago, when it banned indoor smoking? That ban preceded any similar state law, and as such, was unenforceable at the time.
There are big differences, however, between that ban and this proposal.
First, the city got the buy-in of local business owners to adhere to the ban. That’s what made it work. On public streets, the only enforcement available would be to fine those caught smoking, and it’s almost certain in the “Live Free or Die” state, the ordinance would be challenged in short order. And given the Legislature’s reticence to pass enabling legislation to allow municipalities to enact laws, we’d guess it may well fail, leaving the city not only powerless to enforce the ban but also liable in whatever legal action was brought.
Moreover, the reasoning behind the indoor restaurant smoking ban was primarily based on the health risks of secondhand smoke. These risks have been well-established by multiple studies. It was easy to make the case that not only would fellow diners be endangered by having to sit for an extended time in a room with smoke wafting through the air, but especially, staff would be forced to endure it for however long a shift they worked, every shift they worked. That was the tipping point in the argument, and it doesn’t apply in an outdoor setting, where smoke does not linger in proximity to the smoker.
Therefore, while the city might see a very small bump in overall health if some current smokers give up the habit just because it’s made more challenging, the secondhand-smoke benefits to passersby seem minimal. In that respect, it’s really more an issue of annoyance.
The economic benefits touted also seem, to us, imaginary. It’s hard to imagine many prospective tourists opting to head for Keene because they heard smoking is banned on Main Street. And we don’t see any businesses’ futures relying on that scenario; rather, it’s more likely eateries that now allow smoking in outdoor seating would lose customers.
Which brings us to the butt of the problem, and the best argument for a ban: litter. We agree it’s unsightly to walk down the street — any street, not just Main — and see cigarette butts strewn about the ground. The mindset that butts are small and therefore it’s OK to just dump them on the ground is among the worst aspects of smoking. Litter is litter.
But there are far less-intrusive ways to deal with that. Start with actually enforcing the existing littering laws. Sure, it’s time-intensive, but if it’s not worth enforcing, why is it even a law? Also, the city could place more receptacles for used cigarette butts around the downtown area, likely at a fraction of what it would cost to defend a civil lawsuit over a toothless ban.
We sympathize with the intent of ridding the downtown of litter and the annoyance of walking past someone whose smoke is blown your way. But enacting an outdoor ban is overkill and an unduly intrusive solution.