Clearing the air around hospitals

City Council proposal would ban smoking on sidewalks adjacent to buildings

November 18, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Darryl Melvin likes to smoke a cigarette on the sidewalk in front of Mercy Medical Center after he sees his cardiologist - an appointment he keeps every three months.

"It eases my nerves," Melvin, 45, said yesterday as he enjoyed his smoke amid butts littering the grounds around the hospital. "I have bad nerves. I have twin 15-year-old boys."

But if the Baltimore City Council adopts a bill introduced last night, Melvin would have to cross the street before lighting up. The initiative would create smoke-free zones on sidewalks adjacent to the city's 17 hospitals. Violators would face a $50 fine.

Secondhand smoke wafting around hospitals creates an environment that is unfair and unhealthy to patients, said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who introduced the bill and who last year successfully pushed a ban on smoking in city bars and restaurants.

"People have to go through a cloud" in order to walk into a hospital, Curran said.

The idea for the legislation, he said, came from several city hospital executives who approached council members seeking the ability to regulate land around their buildings. It is modeled after a similar law in Denver.

Some City Council members are uncomfortable with the idea, saying it infringes on freedoms guaranteed to people in public spaces. Others worried that a ban could push smokers into residential neighborhoods.

Smokers are already bristling at the idea of more restrictions.

"They are taking away all of our rights," said Dorothy Conway, 66, lighting up her cigarette a few feet away from Melvin.

She grew testy as the legislation was described: "You can't smoke in buildings, you can't smoke in bars. We pay taxes just like [nonsmokers] do."

But nationally, hospital executives view a smoke-free campus as an objective worthy of emulating, said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. "It seems pretty straightforward," he said.

Some smokers seemed to agree. Melvin said he'd be happy to light up elsewhere. One woman who was approached yesterday on the sidewalk near Mercy immediately extinguished her cigarette, even though the legislation had not been introduced at that point. She declined to give her name.

Curran said he envisions the law being enforced by Health Department officials, not city police. Complaints could be registered with a call to the city's 311 nonemergency help line, but already time-pressed code enforcement officers "won't come out by the end of the cigarette, that is for sure," he said.

Forty hospitals in Maryland restrict smoking on their campuses, said Nancy Fiedler of the Maryland Hospital Association. Most of the smoke-free hospitals are on larger suburban campuses, she said.

Urban hospitals have a difficult time enforcing smoking bans because they control little, if any, of the land around their buildings. "You have a city street that runs in front of your front entrance that you don't have jurisdiction over," Fiedler said.

And that is the bind in which Greg Schaffer, president of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, finds himself. He's hoping to make the East Baltimore hospital smoke-free, but so many city streets cut through the property that he believes such a ban would be useless. "If those streets are designated 'no smoking,' that is a major change and a positive change," he said.

Passage of a hospital smoking ban should be easier, Curran said, than the years-long slog he led to curtail smoking in city bars and restaurants. He's got the support of City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, whose office announced yesterday that it supported the legislation. Councilman James B. Kraft, who fought against the smoking ban in bars (but abstained on final passage), is a co-sponsor on this bill. Kraft likes the hospital smoking ban because the idea came from those who would be affected by it, he said.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has not taken a formal stand, but her chief of staff, Demaune Millard, said that she's very interested in the idea.

But when the bill was discussed at yesterday's City Council lunch, some of Curran's colleagues sounded uncomfortable. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke worried that such a rule would just push smokers across the street, possibly in front of private homes.

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young also didn't like the idea. "What is next?" he asked. "You won't be able to breathe air? I think government is being too intrusive in peoples' lives."

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