PORTLAND, Maine — During the past five years, Portland has implemented at least two ordinances banning smoking from different areas, and another cementing a $100 fine for those caught flicking a butt onto city property.
The most recent of the ordinances, which disallows smoking in three dozen city parks and open spaces, took effect last week.
Combined along the way with a state law that restricts smoking in outdoor eating areas, the local rules choke off opportunities for smokers in Maine’s largest city to blow off some smoke.
In January, the University of Southern Maine launched a tobacco ban that triggered protests from student smokers who felt the new rule went too far and infringed on their rights.
But the reaction among the nonstudent smokers found Wednesday afternoon in some of the public spaces now declared to be “no-smoking” areas were less strident about their grievances.
When told her cigarette could earn her a $50 fine while sitting at the base of the Our Lady of Victories statue in Monument Square, Desirae Rowe shrugged and laughed.
“They can give me a $50 fine then,” Rowe, a Westbrook resident who was enjoying the park with her 3-year-old daughter, Kasen Leeman, said. “I’ll just add it onto the rest of them that I owe.”
Steve Kelley said that in his capacity as a maintenance worker at a nearby property, he cleans up discarded cigarette butts “all the time.” But he said he didn’t think twice before lighting up one of his own when he stepped out onto the Monument Square sidewalk on the sunny, somewhat warm late winter day.
“What’s the problem? Secondhand smoke? Seriously? If it was the farmers’ market, and it was full-tilt here, or if it was a concert, I wouldn’t smoke. That would just be offensive. But a day like today?” he posed.
“I respect their right, but I cringe whenever they’re around the little ones,” said Kevin Gardella, who was about 30 feet away from Rowe on Wednesday with his infant daughter, Willow, and 6-year-old son, Eliot. “I don’t like to have them be exposed to a bad habit. I’m glad to have a ban on it.”
Kristen Dow, coordinator for the city Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy Portland program, said she has heard little in the way of blowback from smokers since the latest ban was implemented.
That could be because statistically Portland has many more people like Gardella than like Rowe or Kelley. A 2010 survey, providing what Dow described as the most recent data on the subject, found that 14.7 percent of Portland residents smoke — meaning that more than 85 percent do not.
The Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Maine lists the statewide smoking rate among adults at around 21 percent, and among high schoolers at 16.2 percent.
“There have been studies that have shown that even within 20 feet of a smoker outside, you can be exposed to secondhand smoke,” Dow said. “Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, and at least 60 of those are known to cause cancer. Even when outside, we want to protect people from the involuntary exposure to those chemicals.
“This hasn’t been about smokers, but protecting .. the nonsmokers from the involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke,” she continued.
And Dow said the city’s steady implementation of rules outlawing smoking and firming up financial penalties to back them up has given residents, including smokers, fair warning about the city’s long-term public health goals.
That may be why there has been little outrage at the city level when compared with the scene at the university’s Portland campus, she said, where students staged angry protests in December about the schoolwide tobacco ban set to be implemented the next month.
In 2008, the City Council approved an ordinance banning tobacco within 25 feet of public playgrounds, beaches and athletic facilities. In February 2012, the council made another strong statement by updating an ordinance to clarify that people caught tossing butts onto city property would be subject to $100 littering fines.
The new ordinance implemented last week adds 36 city parks and open spaces to its 2008 list, including Deering Oaks Park, Monument Square, Longfellow Square, Tommy’s Park, Fort Allen Park and the Western Promenade, among many others. Dow said similar anti-smoking measures have been passed in neighboring municipalities including South Portland, Scarborough and Westbrook, indicating that Portland is not alone in its crusade.
“There hasn’t been anything passed here in Portland that really hasn’t had a precedent somewhere else,” she said. “[The latest ordinance is] really an extension [of previous local ordinances], just to include all open spaces and public parks in the city of Portland.”
While a city announcement of the new rule indicates that code enforcement officials, police officers and park rangers are all potential enforcers of the ordinance, which carries a possible $50 fine for those who disobey, Dow said the city first wants to publicize the smoking ban. She said many smokers may still not be aware of it, and signs designating high traffic parks and open spaces as “non-smoking areas” will be posted this spring to make it clear.
“We’ve come a long way with the research that’s been done,” she continued. “We now know the health risks associated with smoking and also with secondhand smoke. As that research comes out and as we learn more, we educate people about it. That’s our progression.”