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Crowd at a City Council meeting

Proposed restrictions on tobacco use helped crowd a City Council meeting on Monday. (Photos: Marc Levy)

Smokers invoked the Declaration of Independence, social justice and the specter of recent police killings of people of color to argue against restrictions on smoking in public places heard Monday before the City Council.

And their testimony seemed to have an effect, with councillors leaning toward a gentler set of restrictions, making way for some exemptions and saying outright that some testimony “clicked with me.”

Councillors went for “Option B” to outlaw smoking in fenced-in tot lots, small city parks and in public open spaces during city-permitted events, instead of “Option A” to outlaw smoking in all parks and municipal open space, leaving several public plazas – mainly in Harvard Square and the more southernly parts of the city — where smoking was allowed. The “Option B” set of laws was passed to a second reading, meaning they will be voted later with the potential for further discussion and public comment.

Restrictions, exemptions

The council also adopted an order paving the way for a set of workplace and youth-focused restrictions, including raising the legal age to buy smoking products to 21 and ending the sale of e-cigarettes to minors; restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products that appeal to kids, but not menthol products; banning sales of tobacco products in pharmacies; throwing all cigarette vending and roll-your-own machines out of the city; raising prices; and ending the right to smoke in restaurants’ outdoor dining areas.

Vice mayor Dennis Benzan moved to exempt at least three existing businesses that allow the smoking of water pipes or hookahs. “This ban on smoking in outdoor patios and restaurants [would affect] among the few minority-owned businesses” in Cambridge, said Benzan, who had a separate order Monday to gather data on the city’s minority- and veteran-owned small businesses. “I want to make sure that we are supportive of small businesses.”

The council’s meeting was packed with smokers wearing anti-ban stickers, and some 20 people spoke on the topic during the two-hour public comment period. A few were experts and health advocates, but most were impassioned opponents of further restrictions on smoking who questioned some of the ordinance’s harsher proposals on both social justice aspects and the science – especially since a no-smoking policy for public housing tenants went into effect last summer.

Pretext or public concern

"Smoker Apartheid" sign

A sign displayed at Monday’s council meeting suggests how smokers felt about proposed restrictions.

“In the past 10 or 15 years we’re getting our rights slowly but surely chiseled away. Precedents are constantly being set in new areas to get the wedge in, with federal, state and local governments all involved [based] on some flimsy study on secondhand smoke years ago. They started going into private businesses, bars and restaurants,” said Paul Parrotta, of Harvey Street. “In Cambridge a couple of years ago they started in the apartments. Secondhand smoke is supposedly going through the walls, molecules making people sick, whatever. Now it’s in parks? And outdoor places? How far-fetched is this pretext going to go? Just how far can you stretch that one?”

Speaker Emily Weija, of Charlestown, agreed, saying she was “fed up” with lies and misconceptions about secondhand smoke and quoted a medical journal that said the estimated risks were “close to zero” without an unrealistic degree of exposure to “supposedly toxic” ingredients.

But other speakers related stories of ill health and asthma attacks brought on by being around smoking, and councillor Craig Kelley suggested he too was unpersuaded: “I had a pretty significant headache from the stale cigarette smoke that was in here with the crowd earlier,” Kelley said.

But he was also among the councillors who wanted to see Option B put in place, saying he could avoid people smoking outdoors and that “at some point I think the government oversteps,” but liked that the option kept smoking out of the dozen-plus city parks smaller than 15,000 square feet – most in the eastern half of the city. “I’m comfortable with the idea that in smaller parks it’s just an awkward interaction, and frequently the ones I’ve had when I ask people to stop doing things have not gone well,” he said.

Social justice invoked

The idea of making smoking illegal in public parks worried and angered residents, though. The Rev. Kate Layzer, of First Church in Cambridge in Harvard Square, said the ban would “inevitably turn into another way to push the homeless out of public spaces” and asked councillors to:

Consider how few spaces for rest are open to unhoused people as it stands. And I ask you to bear in mind the cost of harassment that homeless people face when they try to sit or sleep. Do we really want to put in place yet another means of telling people they’re not welcome? Are the benefits to some worth the price for these most vulnerable neighbors?

Several speakers were thinking about the multiplying stories of police interactions gone fatally wrong, mainly the story of Eric Garner, a black man killed in July when New York police applied a chokehold after finding him illegally selling “loosies” – individual cigarettes.

Jennifer Borucki, of Arlington, said she was happy to hear some restrictions being relaxed, but was “concerned that we’re making this a police matter. If we’re saying that this is such a threat to public health that we need police involvement every time people light up in a place they’re not supposed to, that’s pretty alarming. A previous speaker said they wanted to promote ‘healthy, contagious’ behavior. On that I’d like to ask Eric Garner in New York City what that healthy contagious behavior was, because he was just murdered for selling loose cigarettes.”

“Why was he selling loose, single cigarettes?” Borucki asked. “Because they’re so expensive. Because the state has waged war against all types of tobacco use.”

Swayed

A couple of speakers underlined the point by arguing that the banning of tobacco from public places infringed on on the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness spelled out in the Declaration of Independence – even as some of the rhetoric edged into less certain territory, suggesting the city was wrong to raise the smoking age while 18-year-olds could be drafted, or without first instituting clean energy or alternative medicine in local hospitals. Former council candidate Elie Yarden ran well past the three-minute limit for speakers in expounding on the modern loss of personal freedom, then claimed discrimination when Mayor David Maher tried to move on. Some claimed the tobacco proposals had been arrived at undemocratically, behind closed doors.

Some of the language had an impact, with Benzan repeating the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” language as an affirmation and councillor Dennis Carlone saying he had been “moved” by arguments about the right to smoke in parks.

Councillor Marc McGovern said he actually preferred the tougher Option A, but “the issue around the homeless sitting in parks smoking didn’t click with me originally, but it did tonight. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to push those folks out of public places, and I think this  would just be one more. That swayed me” toward Option B.

Next story: Rules against smoking take effect June 1, but compromises don’t please everyone