Montpelier Mayor John Hollar on Tuesday said that the city should proceed cautiously on a downtown smoking ban, something that City Council has been discussing recently.
In a commentary published in the Times Argus, Hollar writes, “I strongly believe in the rights of non-smokers to be protected from exposure to tobacco smoke, but I question whether secondhand smoke exists at harmful levels in our downtown area.” Hollar explains that he has spent much of his career working on anti-tobacco causes, and that his “bias” on the issue is to support all reasonable steps to discourage smoking and protect non-smokers. Nevertheless, he expressed hesitance about going forth with the ban.
Hollar said the question before the City Council is whether a ban on smoking in downtown Montpelier is a reasonable way to discourage smoking in general. He wrote, “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.”
Council member Dona Bate said on Tuesday afternoon that, as far as she knows, Ann Gilbert and Ginny Burley of Central Vermont New Directions Coalition were the ones who brought the idea to the attention of the council in April 2014. According to Gilbert, the coalition director, the original suggestion for a downtown smoke-free zone came from Councilor Jessica Edgerly Walsh. She pointed to a Times Argus article from November 2014, in which Walsh said she would not propose making all of the downtown smoke free.
Gilbert said she could not think of any Vermont communities that had banned smoking outright, but noted the town of Sharon enacted a policy in August 2013 that prohibits smoking on town-owned property.
Bate is in favor of the proposal to ban smoking in downtown Montpelier and equated the idea to littering laws. “It’s meant to change our habits. It’s not about catching people.”
Bate said she doesn’t understand why smoking is treated differently than alcohol, noting it is against the law to openly consume alcoholic beverages on the street. Bate argues that smoking does cause issues in downtown Montpelier, citing smokers congregating around drinking and eating establishments. “Behaviors that people on alcohol exhibit,” she said, “may not be healthy for others to have around. Same with smoking.”
Bate added that she means no disrespect to smokers. “It used to be all about smokers’ rights, and now we are more health oriented. And non-smokers have the right to healthy air,” she said.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Hollar said he feels the measure would go too far.
“I frankly haven’t seen a big problem with secondhand smoke since the Legislature adopted a ban on smoking in bars — not to say it doesn’t exist. I just haven’t experienced it myself,” he said.
Hollar urged people, just as he did in his opinion essay, to attend the City Council meeting June 10, when councilors will revisit the subject. “I encourage anyone with an interest in this issue to share their thoughts with the council,” Hollar said. “The purpose of that meeting is to hear from the city manager’s recommendation as to a process for considering it. No final decision will be made at that meeting.”
Gina Conn is a reporter for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, where this story first appeared. It is republished here through a partnership with the newspaper.