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Do Outdoor Smoking Bans Mostly Punish the Homeless?

Providence, Rhode Island, is considering banning smoking throughout its downtown business district. But critics worry it’s a pretext to force homeless people out of public parks and plazas.

A sign posted in New York's Times Square warns of the city's smoking ban in parks and other public places. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Since March, it has been illegal to smoke cigarettes in public parks in Providence, Rhode Island. The ban followed similar measures in New York and many other cities. In Providence, the change has been celebrated as a boon to public health and a blow against the scourge of litter. But it has also served as a pretext to harass homeless people, according to Barbara Kalil of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project.

"We definitely do see it," says Kalil. "It's pretty obvious people who are homeless, or even look homeless, are targeted more. People that are well dressed or are coming out of the office buildings, they are not targeted."

Now, the Providence City Council is considering a more radical measure to bar outdoor smoking everywhere in the downtown business district, an area where many poor and homeless people spend their time. One of the bill’s major advocates is former mayor Joseph R. Paolino, Jr., who currently runs Paolino Properties, a real estate management, investment and development firm with a considerable interest in downtown properties.

"If this bill saves one life it will be worth it, but a smoke-free downtown is more than a public-health issue," Paolino wrote in a recent op-ed. "It's also an economic-development issue because it would improve the quality of life downtown, making the area better for development. A smoke-free downtown could make our visitors' experience more pleasant."

Unlike indoor secondhand smoke, there is no scientific evidence that outdoor secondhand smoke poses a significant risk to bystanders, according to a 2013 study conducted by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researchers. There is, however, evidence that poor people disproportionately smoke. The Columbia researchers contend that outdoor bans' true rationale are to further stigmatize smoking, rather than any direct public health benefit to passersby.

As Kalil sees it, the intent is clear.

"It's to move the undesirables out," she says. "They don't want the homeless."

Boulder, Colorado, has barred smoking throughout its downtown business district, and the law has been credited with relocating homeless people.

In Burlington, Vermont, a recent ban on smoking along the Church Street shopping district is unfair to poor and homeless people, according to critics. In Seattle, a rule banning smoking in parks prompted a fierce backlash from advocates, including the Seattle King County NAACP, the ACLU of Washington and the Low Income Housing Institute.

"The rule would disproportionately impact the poor and homeless," wrote ACLU of Washington deputy director Jennifer Shaw, "who do not have living rooms and front porches, with minimal health benefits over the current rule... Although the Department asserts that the rule will be applied equally to all park users, it is clear that homeless people will be disparately impacted."

That's because the "city was clear that while the parks smoking ban would be city-wide, enforcement resources would focus on Westlake, Steinbrueck, and Occidental Parks, all downtown core parks with high rates of usage by homeless people," emails Timothy Harris, director of Real Change, Seattle's homeless newspaper. "We saw this as part of Mayor [Ed] Murray's and Police Chief [Kathleen] O'Toole's general embrace of broken windows theory, and an excuse to criminalize a legal activity in public spaces and reduce the sort of visible poverty that can detract from shopping and tourism."

The city's parks department, in an effort to mollify critics, said citations would not be issued. But ignoring repeated warnings could still lead to a trespassing arrest, according to The Seattle Times. A recent parks ban in Portland, Oregon, met little resistance, it seems, in large part because of plans for gentle enforcement.

In New York, where former mayor Michael Bloomberg harnessed the awesome power of government to compel healthy living, just 440 tickets were issued in the first three years or so of the city’s parks smoking ban, according to a 2014 article in the Gotham Gazette, most of them in Manhattan.

But it's hard to discern how widely outdoor smoking bans are enforced. Police may stop people for smoking in unauthorized places without issuing a citation, says Brooklyn Defender Services special litigation counsel Susannah Karlsson. And minor code violations are "often used as a pretext to conduct otherwise unsubstantiated searches," she says.

About the Author

  • Daniel Denvir
    Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.