D.C. moves to curb sidewalk smoking, youths' access to tobacco

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; B01

The D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to enact far-reaching proposals to curtail smoking by giving store owners a tool to prevent smoking on public sidewalks and by assessing new penalties on anyone younger than 18 who possesses tobacco products.

The bill, part of a coordinated campaign to reduce tobacco use in the District, also requires store owners to ask for identification from anyone buying cigarettes who looks 27 or younger, places new restrictions on cigarette-vending machines and outlaws the sale of "blunt wraps."

Currently, it is illegal for retailers to sell tobacco to anyone who is younger than 18. The proposal, which must be voted on a second time, also makes it illegal for a minor to "purchase" or "possess any cigarette or other tobacco products."

Violators will be subject to a civil penalty of $50 or less if they are caught with tobacco. But anyone younger than 18 caught using a false identification card to purchase cigarettes could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $300 for a first offense.

"We are trying to reduce underage smoking, so we are putting in a penalty," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

But Peter Fisher, vice president for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said his organization opposes making it a crime for minors to possess tobacco. Instead, Fisher said, the council should focus on retailers who sell tobacco to minors. "There really isn't any evidence that these kind of youth possession laws do anything to reduce tobacco use," Fisher said.

Although much of the bill targets teen smoking, one provision could affect anyone who smokes on a public sidewalk in the District.

Responding to complaints from business owners that some pockets of sidewalk smokers were becoming a nuisance, the bill allows shop owners to post no-smoking signs in front of their establishments. Under the measure, store owners can specify they don't want smoking within 25 feet of their front door or from the sidewalk, whichever distance is less. But the bill does not include enforcement provisions, meaning smokers could ignore the signs without fear of being penalized.

Angela Bradbery, a co-founder of SmokeFree DC, which pushed for the measure, said the 25-foot rule is designed to close a loophole in the 2006 law that banned smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places.

Since that law took effect, Bradbery said her organization has received complaints from some business owners, including a doctor's office, that smoke from sidewalks wafts into their work spaces. "This is just trying to find a reasonable and sensible way to deal with a problem that has cropped up," Bradbery said. "Hopefully, smokers will say, 'Oh, okay. I will move down here'."

Despite the lack of penalties, the sidewalk provision has sparked debate in recent weeks over whether the council was moving too aggressively to reduce smoking.

As it struggled with a budget deficit, the council voted in July to increase the cigarette tax by 50 cents to $2.50 a pack, one of the highest rates in the nation.

Both Mendelson and council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the chairman of the Health Committee, said the council has no plans to outlaw tobacco use. But Catania said the council is seeing success in "discouraging people from starting to smoke through education and taxes" and the investment in smoking-cessation programs.

Catania cited recent studies that show an almost 20 percent decline in smoking in the city between 2005 and 2008. In 2005, about 20 percent of adults in the city smoked, according to the study. By 2008, that percentage had dropped to 16.2 percent, the 10th lowest ranking among the 50 states and the District, according to the American Lung Association.

Catania said the decline will save District taxpayers about $175 million in future medical costs. "We are raising consciousness about what the health risks are, and we are making it more expensive and more difficult," he said. "These things work in tandem."

According to Catania, about 10.5 percent of high school students in the District smoked in 2008.

The proposal approved Tuesday also prohibits cigarettes from being intermingled with other products in bars and restaurants, which is designed to make it easier for store owners to keep track of who is buying tobacco from vending machines. The bill also prohibits cigarettes from being sold from mobile food stands, such as traveling hot dog or ice cream stands.

The provision banning the sale of cigar wrappers is targeted at marijuana smokers. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), concerned that too many youths are smoking marijuana rolled in blunts, initially had a proposal to ban the single sale of all cheap cigars.

But Mendelson scrapped the measure and instead proposed the ban on the wrappers.

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