It seems times will soon be getting tougher for D.C. smokers. Many are already affected by high taxes on cigarettes and banned from smoking in restaurants, bars and nightclubs since the District’s 2007 indoor smoking ban was fully implemented – now, the D.C. Council is turning up the heat.

The council is considering a bill originally proposed in August that would permit business owners to restrict smoking outside of their establishments. The bill, introduced by Councilmembers Phil Mendelson and Yvette Alexander, would authorize bans on smoking within 25 feet of any commercial or residential building’s wall or to the far side of the public sidewalk adjacent to the building. The bill targets those who smoke on the sidewalk in front of any given establishment.

uch of the rationale behind anti-smoking legislation is understandable; many complain of the odor and dangers of the secondhand smoke that often enshrouds business entrances. The effects of public smoking are hardly pleasant.

But this new proposal goes too far. The indoor ban, enacted in 2007, addresses the major health concerns of public smoking. It ensures that customers at a restaurant, for example, can enjoy a peaceful and secondhand-smoke-free dining experience. Those who wish to smoke can slip outside of the restaurant for a few moments to have a cigarette. In this case, the smoker ought to take a few steps away from the entrance so that others can enter freely without having to come directly into contact with cigarette smoke. But what is the point of forcing a customer or employee to walk 25 feet (or into the road, beyond the far end of the sidewalk) to have one cigarette?

“I want the owner of the property to be able to say `no’ if he wants to. We’re not prohibiting smoking,” Mendelson said. He claims the effect of the bill would be minimal and would only make it illegal to smoke outside of establishments that enforce the ban.

One problem with the bill, besides the fact that it places an unfair imposition on smoking customers, lies in Mendelson’s latter claim. Many areas in the District – such as nearby M Street and Wisconsin Avenue – have a high concentration of commercial properties. If multiple businesses adjacent to one another were to enact this proposed ban, customers could end up having to walk as much as a block away from the restaurant’s front door before finding a legal place to have a cigarette. Of course, the customer would also have the option of walking into the street to get his or her fix – beyond the closest adjacent sidewalk – but this alternative is both unreasonable and unsafe.

According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 21 percent of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes, compared to 28 percent in 2001. Moreover, the public has taken on an increasingly sour attitude toward secondhand smoking; a 2008 Gallup poll reports that 56 percent of U.S. adults consider secondhand smoking harmful to other adults. Perhaps Mendelson and Alexander consider this growing aversion to secondhand smoke sufficient grounds for their proposal.

The debate surrounding this particular smoking ban should not revolve solely around the public’s perception of smoking, however. The D.C. Council ought to consider the inconvenience that the bill would mean for the smokers themselves. The indoor smoking ban was a reasonable reaction to commonly accepted health risks and the changing public attitude toward smoking. Requiring smokers to step outside the building – as the 2007 ban stipulates – is a fair request. Now, by attempting to discourage public smoking even further than it did in 2007, the D.C. Council will alienate smokers unnecessarily, sending them to the curb in the process.

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