2016-10-07 / Front Page

South Portland Council moves to snuff out e-cigarettes

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — An attempt to ban the use of electronic cigarettes from public property in South Portland was extended to a ban on smoking at bus stops at a recent city council meeting, leading some councilors to blame the new regulations on smoking bans in pubic housing projects.

The drive to deep-six “vaping” began at the council’s Sept. 26 workshop. At that session, the city’s director of parks, recreation and waterfront, Kevin Adams, and Jana Richards, a public health coordinator for the Opportunity Alliance, asked the council to prohibit use of electronic cigarettes in all public places where tobacco products are now banned, including parks, beaches, playgrounds and athletic fields. Fines for violators would range as high as $500.

Although e-cigarettes vaporize flavored water instead of burning tobacco, the product still contains nicotine and can serve as a gateway for young people to eventual tobacco use, Richards said. Although most e-cigarette manufacturers claim the only emission from the product is water vapor, hence the term “vaping,” according to the American Lung Association, “The aerosol (vapor) emitted by e-cigarettes and exhaled by users contains carcinogens, such as formaldehyde.”

During debate, Councilor Claude Morgan asked that the ban be extended to all city and school bus stops.

“I think we owe it to our kids to make sure there is not passive smoke in that area where they are going to be waiting 20 minutes in the morning,” he said.

South Portland already prohibits smoking in bus shelters, but when the council took up the ordinance amendments at its Monday, Oct. 3 meeting, the smoke free zone was extended to a radius of 25 feet from all bus stops. The change came with support from school Superintendent Ken Kunin and interim City Manager Don Gerrish. The 25-foot clean air zone is based on an Augusta ordinance, Gerrish said, adding that the capital city is the only other Maine municipality with such a provision.

Also the city bus stops are in fixed locations, the 25-foot bubbles around school bus stops will change from year-to-year.

“There may be up to 15 or 20 changes each year in the (school) bus stops, but a list of those will be put up on the city website,” Gerrish said.

Asked how the ban would be enforced, Gerrish said that would be up to city police, although he suggested snuffing out smokers might not top the department’s priority list.

“Realistically, they’re not going to be riding around (looking for that), but if they get the calls they will go to the locations,” Gerrish said. “But that’s not going to be something you’re going to see every day.”

Still, councilors were unanimous in calling the ban a solid step in the right direction.

“This coincides with what we are doing at the high school level with drug abuse with kids,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “This is just another addictive drug.”

Morgan, meanwhile, said complaints from a resident in his district led him to add the bus stop ban to Adams’ suggested action on vaping.

“This started for with me with a complaint from a constituent who sees children, including her own child, have to walk in front of a cluster of smokers who are banned from smoking in their public housing project, and so have moved across the street to where the bus stop is and, as recently as this week, put out chairs there and sit and smoke 10 at a time, and kids have to gather around that,” Morgan said. “So, this was my way of addressing that.”

Morgan suggested city action is needed due to bad parenting.

“In Knightville, I’ve actually seen parents waiting (at school bus stops) with their kids, which is a great thing to do except they’re toking on a cigarette, and there are other kids besides their own kids who are sitting there accepting that passive smoke,” Morgan said, calling his amendment a “no-brainer.”

“We’re hoping to give those younger sets of lungs a good start and a good chance in life,” Morgan said.

However, simply outlawing use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from around bus stops may not have been the city’s first option. Morgan said the city approached South Portland Housing Authority “and asked them to carve out an area for smoking.

“My understanding is their response was, ‘No, our property is smoke free,’” Morgan said.

According to Morgan, the authority’s unwillingness to provide a smoking area for its tenants has led to an increase of smoking in public places, like bus stops.

“That means the problem has moved out in to the neighborhood, and now we are cleaning up that problem,” he said. “I am frankly surprised they took the position they did and could not accommodate school kids waiting at a bus stop.”

However, Councilor Brad Fox took umbrage at the alleged dispersions cast on South Portland Housing Authority.

“I don’t see any need to single out the South Portland Housing Authority for not setting aside a smoking area when they don’t allow smoking on their property,” he said. “It’s really not their issue. It’s our issue to deal with (because) it’s happening on city streets. I don’t really like picking on individual people or organizations.”

Mayor Tom Blake backed up Morgan, adding that he has recently felt compelled to walk in the streets to avoid “200 butts, at least” scattered on sidewalks near city bus stops.

“The point being made here is we have a problem,” Blake said. “And this is becoming a serious problem. Your campus is only smoke-free if you push that problem off on someone else.”

The city council is expected to vote on final passage of the vaping ban and smoke-free bus stop zones at its next regular business meeting, Monday, Oct. 17.

However, Blake hinted that more regulations might be needed to combat the growing number of people who crowd together to smoke on city sidewalks, having been punted by smoking bans from many schools, colleges, housing complexes, businesses and public sites to enact tobacco bans in recent years. A council workshop to address the issue may be needed, Blake said.

“Many people have complained they can no longer walk on city sidewalks,” he said.

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