August 9, 2013

THE DISTRICT is poised to join the growing number of jurisdictions that have banned smoking near parks, recreation centers, public trails and bus stops. Anything that discourages smoking and protects people from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke is worthwhile. But the city needs to do more than extend outdoor smoking restrictions if it wants a truly effective and comprehensive tobacco prevention program.

The D.C. Council this month gave tentative approval to a bill that would make these public areas smoke-free. Under the measure, slated for a final vote when the council returns from summer recess in September, smoking would not be allowed within 25 feet of any city-owned park, community or recreation center, hiking trail or bus stop. Federal properties, such as the Mall or Freedom Plaza, would not be affected, and a homeowner or tenant who resides within the 25-foot buffer would be exempted.

Violations could result in a fine, but the city would rely primarily on self-enforcement, as it does with existing anti-smoking laws. In 2006, the District imposed a ban on indoor smoking; in 2010, the council approved a measure that permits businesses and government offices to prohibit smoking near their entrances. Unlike the earlier ban on indoor smoking, there was little opposition to the outdoor restrictions. No one testified against it at the council’s public hearing; that’s probably a reflection of the public’s lowered tolerance of smoking. Ten of the 13 council members voted for the measure.

The danger of secondhand smoke is lower outside than inside, but there are still risks, with children particularly susceptible. “Let the smokers move away from recreation areas and parks and bus stops,” said Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) in a rebuke of the argument that people who want to avoid secondhand smoke should just walk away. The District ranks high in the number of young people who start smoking before 18, a factor that increases the chances of becoming a lifelong smoker, and the outside ban is seen as helping to set a model for behavior.

The District has lagged in mounting a comprehensive tobacco prevention program; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranked D.C. 35th among states in the funding of cessation programs. The $495,000 cited by the CDC for fiscal 2013 is an improvement over the previous year, when no money was allocated. The move to restrict outdoor smoking, also supported by Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration, is an encouraging sign of the council’s renewed interest in trying to discourage smoking.