Sunday, July 21, 2024


Diners enjoy a hookah with their meal in Central Square in 2013.

Diners enjoy a hookah with their meal in Central Square in 2013. (Photo: Bruno P.)

Limits on e-cigarettes and smoking in larger public parks were voted in Thursday by the City Council, but some exotic tobacco sales will still be allowed, and businesses offering outdoor hookah use can go on doing so.

Councillors put off implementation of the law until June 1 because of worries that having it go into effect overnight meant store owners stocking tobacco would wake up to find themselves in violation – and put the city in the position of not enforcing its own law. Another late change to the ordinance made clear that the city was to use the months until June 1 to reach out to those store owners to let them know of the changes.

“It’s not meant to be an ambush,” said the city’s director of environmental health, Sam Lipson.

The tobacco restrictions were introduced Dec. 15 in tougher and more lenient options, with strong turnout by smokers and smoker-rights supporters during public comment swaying councillors toward fewer restrictions. Passionate speakers, who at their most dramatic evoked images of Nazi repression and fatal, race-charged conflicts with police nationwide, carried on even at a Jan. 5 council meeting that didn’t include debate on the issue.

Speakers turned out again Thursday, seven contributing comment at a meeting that already promised to be long: After two weeks off for a planning roundtable and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the agenda included 24 items from the city manager; 27 councillors’ policy orders, and another four that had been put aside by “charter right” use at a previous meeting; and 91 resolutions, which sometimes are discussed by councillors.

At the midnight end of a marathon meeting of some six hours and 15 minutes, the council managed to barely get through the city manager’s items and adopt formally all of the communications and resolutions. All of the council’s own orders for the day are officially tabled, and votes of five or more members will be needed to revive them when the council meets again Monday – when another 10 policy orders face them, but only a half-dozen items on the city manager’s agenda.

The rules

Lipson reminded councillors of rules they passed in December to a second reading and vote, including:

bullet-gray-small extending prohibitions on workplace smoking to include electronic cigarettes.

bullet-gray-small exempting eateries with hookahs or water pipes from prohibitions on smoking in outdoor seating.

bullet-gray-small blocking sales of e-cigarettes to minors.

bullet-gray-small raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21 from 18.

bullet-gray-small letting smoking go on in larger public parks, on public sidewalks, urban plazas and other “hardscapes.”

bullet-gray-small allowing continued sale of flavored tobacco products at tobacconists, such as Harvard Square’s Leavitt & Peirce and Jack’s Smoke Shop at Alewife.

The council vote means that no-smoking rules around playgrounds and tot lots “would be encouraged with signage,” Lipson said, as well as “outreach efforts promoting reasonable and commonsense smoking behaviors.”

Late changes

But the councillors had more changes, including adding unfenced tot lots to a list of playgrounds where smoking was banned, and Leland Cheung’s request to take e-cigarettes out of restaurants.

Lipson pointed out that because no approved studies showed there was a secondhand-smoke danger from e-cigarettes, a prohibition “is no longer an evidence-based policy. We’re just not there at this point.” Cheung, though, said he had done extensive reading on the topic and found the quality of the devices varied widely among manufacturers, meaning some e-cigarettes could be more harmful than others in dispersing the “potentially harmful” vapor.

Mainly, he worried that allowing e-cigarettes in restaurants while traditional cigarettes were banned was confusing and problematic because “we’re now reversing de facto behavior” that has vapers tending to congregate outdoors with smokers of traditional tobacco. When the amendment came up for a vote, it passed 6-3, with only Mayor David Maher, vice mayor Dennis Benzan and councillor E. Denise Simmons in opposition.

Changing the date the law went into effect was even easier, since otherwise potentially dozens of storekeepers big and small were turned into violators overnight. City Solicitor Nancy Glowa said it was “not feasible to have a law on our books but not be enforcing it.”

Compromise complaints

The most complication came with city staff and councillors hashing out the details of adding no-smoking rules to unfenced play areas and smaller open spaces at Clement G. Morgan Park in Area IV, Raymond Park in Neighborhood Nine and Bergin Park in North Cambridge, bringing plenty of questions about their size (because 15,000 square feet is the dividing line for whether a park is big enough to allow smoking within it), installing signs to warn off smokers and how the law would be enforced.

Lipson assured officials that the number of smoking-near-playground violations would be very small, but City Manager Richard C. Rossi was still unhappy with the new convolutions.

“This is why our original proposal was to ban smoking outright in parks, because as we looked at all these different issues you can see how tricky it gets,” Rossi said. “We were asked to come up with a compromise. I don’t think the compromise is wise. What we set out to do was make something that was clear and easily understandable and easily enforceable. ” Police would now have to carry lists of nonsmoking parks, he said.

Despite having won lesser restrictions, the smokers present Thursday also had complaints about the compromise, in part because there is widespread belief among those speaking at council meetings that health concerns about secondhand smoke are overblown, and that the studies showing the dangers of secondhand smoke are flawed or misinterpreted.

“Nobody has ever proved scientifically that secondhand smoke can be harmful to you. There are a million things more harmful,” said Sami Herbawi, a Franklin Street resident and the owner of Andala Coffee House in Central Square, echoed later by Steve Helfer. Herbawi was also one of two speakers to tell councillors they had bigger issues to deal with, from snow in the streets to autism, with the second speaker making that argument, Rachael Ann Worden, also saying the tobacco rules “smacked of social engineering by extremely presumptuous people.”

Such complaints brought another set of assurances from Lipson – that Cambridge’s laws, even with the additions being rolled out June 1, were far from the harshest smokers would encounter. Across the river in Boston, there’s no exemption for hookahs, for instance, and smoking in all parks is forbidden, he said.

Previous story: Smokers sway council toward Option B, gentler restrictions on public tobacco use