Charleston approves outdoor smoking ban for streets and sidewalks in the hospital district

"What am I hurting walking down the sidewalk" said Justin Muir as he has a cigarette walking down Bee Street. The City of Charleston is voting on banning smoking from sidewalks and streets surrounding the hospital district Tuesday January 8, 2013. (Grace Beahm /postandcourier.com) Buy this photo

When Charleston’s downtown hospital campuses went smoke-free, smokers took to the streets, but now those public spaces will be off-limits as well.

Specifics of new law

Charleston’s new outdoor smoking ban:

Takes effect: March 1

Where: Public sidewalks and streets in the downtown hospital district.

Does smoking in cars count? Not if the car is moving.

What if someone breaks the rules? A fine of up to $25.

Who will enforce the rules? Hospital security staff.

City Council Tuesday approved an outdoor smoking ban for a large area around the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper St. Francis, where people will be prohibited from smoking on sidewalks, streets or even in parked cars.

Justin Muir, an MUSC employee who was smoking a cigarette on the Bee Street sidewalk earlier in the day, said the prohibition seems unreasonable.

“There’s more pollutants coming out of those cars,” he said. “And last time I checked, tobacco is still legal.”

Muir said when the prohibition takes effect March 1, he will do exactly what some opponents of the smoking ban predict, “Walk to the next block.”

Hospital officials have pressed for the ban, saying it’s necessary for health reasons, and to reduce problems involving employees smoking on neighboring properties.

On City Council there were sharp divisions over the new regulations. An amendment that would have significantly reduced the restrictions failed by a single vote.

Councilman Aubry Alexander, who proposed the amendment, saw banning legal behavior on public streets and sidewalks as an infringement on personal liberties. He, along with Councilmen Gary White and Robert Mitchell, said the ban will set a precedent that could lead to more businesses asking for smoking prohibitions.

Mayor Joe Riley said the outdoor smoking ban would be unique to the city’s hospital district, and was a needed health measure and “a reasonable action for our city to take.”

White said the ban would simply push smokers to areas where they can smoke, but supporters including hospital officials and Riley said patients should not have to walk through harmful tobacco smoke to get into a hospital.

“It seems to me that the scale overwhelmingly moves in the direction of protecting people who are sick (as opposed to smokers’ rights),” the mayor said.

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie noted that no smokers came before City Council to object to the ordinance, which was first voted upon in December.

Back in the hospital district neighborhood, MUSC student Gen Flanders agreed with the prohibition.

“It’s kind of annoying, having to walk through clouds of smoke to get to class,” she said, noting that smokers driven from the hospital campus often sit on a low wall outside her house to smoke.

Anthony Cavalea, a contractor working at MUSC, was having a smoke on Bee Street after parking his truck, and said the new rules won’t bother him too much.

“I can see why they would want to (ban smoking),” he said. “It is a hospital area.”

Local businesses, the Ashley Hall school, and the Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association had joined MUSC and Roper in pushing for the outdoor smoking ban.

“We can’t even keep the doors open when it’s nice out,” said Gene Anderton, manager of the Halo coffee shop across from MUSC. “They’ll stand on the corner and smoke, and we’ll see the same people every 30 or 40 minutes.”

On City Council, Alexander said there surely is a public nuisance, where people have to walk through walls of smoke on sidewalks around the hospitals, but it’s a nuisance the hospitals created by banning smoking on their properties.

He suggested that the hospitals should have designated smoking areas, and that the city’s role should be limited to prohibiting smoking within 100 feet of hospital entrances.

Alexander’s proposed amendment failed on a 6-6 vote, with Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson abstaining because she works part time for MUSC. The street-and-sidewalk ban was then approved 8-4, with a few changes to the area that would be covered.

Councilman James Lewis had objected to Cannon Street being included in the prohibited area, so the northern boundary was changed to Bee Street. And Hope Lodge, a facility for cancer patients on Ashley Avenue south of Calhoun Street, asked to be included in the boundary area, and was.

Susan Johnson, director of the Office of Health Promotion at MUSC, said the hospitals offer smoking-cessation programs for employees, and nicotine gum for visitors who smoke.

Hospital security forces will be in charge of enforcing the smoking prohibition, and issuing fines of up to $25 for violations.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.

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