Rep. proposes ban on smoking in public spaces

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2012

In 2005, smokers received some bad news — Rhode Island had joined a number of other states in banning smoking inside bars and enclosed workspaces. Now, state Rep. Richard Morrison, D-Bristol, wants to take that law a step further and make it illegal to smoke in any outdoor public establishment.

The proposed legislation would keep smokers from lighting up in public parks, beaches and playgrounds. The regulation would only extend to property under the jurisdiction of the state government, preserving students’ rights to smoke on the Main Green and other outdoor areas on campus.

“If you have your kid on a blanket on the beach and someone comes up next to you and starts smoking — that’s not a good thing,” Morrison said.

Some students said they thought the legislation would unfairly penalize smokers. “I understand why they make it illegal, but then again it is a public space. If someone doesn’t want to be near a smoker, they can get up and leave,” said Erika Manouselis ’15. “Smokers want to be out in a nice day as much as anyone else.”

“People shouldn’t be limited in their rights as long as it doesn’t hurt other people,” said Ben Vila ’15. “Smoking in a public space does not directly affect other people, so they shouldn’t outlaw it.”

But Morrison disagreed with the notion that smoking in a park is a right. “In a public place, it’s a privilege to smoke,” he said.

Morrison cited health concerns over exposure to secondhand smoke as the primary reason for introducing the bill.  “Secondhand smoke is more dangerous to the person breathing than to the person smoking the cigarette,” he said.

“That (assertion) would be an overstatement in terms of empirical evidence,” said Christopher Kahler, chair and professor of behavior and social sciences. But “more people are exposed to secondhand smoke than smoke themselves.” One smoker can affect multiple people and the overall effect on others may be worse than that on the original smoker, he added.

A general consensus exists among researchers that secondhand smoke — classified as a carcinogen by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency — is dangerous.

Rhode Island would not be the first state to outlaw smoking in public areas. An even broader law outlawing smoking in public passed the New York City Council last year.

The bill is still under debate in committee, but Morrison said if it makes it to a vote, he does not see any reason why it would not become law. “It’s gotten a lot of interest and a lot of support,” he said. The bill has yet to meet public opposition.

The goal of the bill is not to force people to stop smoking, Morrison said. “But if it makes it more inconvenient to smoke, and so they decide to quit, that’s a great thing, too,” he said.

Lawmakers often consider raising taxes on cigarettes as an alternative method to reduce smoking. But Morrison said he never considered raising taxes because it would not solve the immediate problem of smoke pervading public places. “If you’re waiting for a bus, and you’re allergic or sickened by smoke, you can’t get away from it without missing the bus,” he said.

Though Morrison’s primary interest is not necessarily to reduce smoking, Rhode Island lawmakers have taken a number of steps to reduce the number of smokers in the state. Rhode Island currently has the second-highest rate of taxation per pack of cigarettes, trailing only New York. A pack of cigarettes in Rhode Island is currently taxed $3.46, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 proposed a four-cent per-pack increase in his State of the State address Tuesday night.

Rhode Island has in the past received poor marks from the American Lung Association for its efforts to curb smoking. The state received a failing grade for its level of funding for programs designed to help people quit smoking. But Rhode Island did receive an A for its “smoke-free air” after banning smoking in workspaces, bars and a number of other places. The state also received an A rating for its high tax on cigarettes.