published Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Smoking opponents take fight outside in Chattanooga

Albert Davidson smokes a cigarillo on a bench on Market Street in Chattanooga. Increasing numbers of places around the country have sought bans on smoking in public places.
Albert Davidson smokes a cigarillo on a bench on Market Street in Chattanooga. Increasing numbers of places around the country have sought bans on smoking in public places.
Photo by Maura Friedman.
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If smokers had a map showing where they are allowed to light up in Chattanooga, the boundaries over the past five years would seem as shifting and unreliable as, well, smoke.

The number of smoking-friendly restaurants and bars continues to shrink. Festivals and concert venues are more unpredictable. More workplaces have banned smoking on their properties.

But there's always been the great outdoors: Smoking is still permitted in Chattanooga parks and public spaces.

That's exactly where anti-tobacco advocates have their sights set next.

"Eventually we'd like to see all public parks smoke-free," said Kevin Lusk, chairman of Tobacco-Free Chattanooga. "I think nationwide attitudes are changing and Chattanooga is no different. ... We'd like to see an ordinance presented to the City Council."

The number of outdoor smoking bans at city parks, public beaches, college campuses and elsewhere in the United States has nearly doubled in the past five years, according to an Associated Press report.

More than 800 U.S. cities have banned smoking in public parks, according to an April list from Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a California-based nonprofit organization.

Chattanooga City Councilman Chris Anderson said the potential for public smoking bans has interested him "for a long time."

"It's something I've been studying," he said. "It's a direction I believe our city has been progressing toward."

The Tennessee Non-Smoker Protection Act of 2007 banned smoking in most enclosed public places. In the Chattanooga area, the number of outdoor smoking bans also has increased.

East Ridge voted last year to restrict tobacco use to designated areas on public property. The Riverbend Festival has limited smoking inside the gates to certain zones. Miller Plaza became smoke-free last year, meaning no more smoking at the Nightfall summer concert series.

Kim White, president and CEO of Chattanooga development agency River City Co., supports public smoking bans.

"After events, it is unbelievable the amount of cigarette butts littering our streets," she said. "You look at the progressive cities we're trying to be like, and you're seeing more and more that their public places restrict smoking. It's time we look at it."

White says she also hopes to one day see downtown businesses snuff out patio smoking.

But some may put up a hard fight.

Depending on the hour and wind direction, the faint scent of cigar smoke will waft down Cherry Street from Burns Tobacconist, where patrons puff fine cigars and pipes under the lazy whir of ceiling fans on the covered sidewalk patio.

"We can just sit outside, smoke a cigar and enjoy this beautiful day," manager Shannon Baxter said. "We get so many compliments from people who walk by who say the pipe and cigar smoke is so aromatic."

Baxter is a member of Cigar Rights of America, an organization fighting smoking bans. She said she moved to Tennessee to take advantage of what she said was a less-regulated environment.

"We have people from out of town who say they can't even smoke outside of their house," she said. "If we can't smoke here at our shop, where's it going to end?"

At the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, Paula Collier is blunt about how far she'd like to see smoke-free areas extend one day: "Everywhere."

Collier, the department's tobacco prevention coordinator, said 20 percent of people in Hamilton County smoke. That's slightly below the state average of 23 percent, and slightly above the 19 percent national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We want to reduce exposure," she said. "If you're going to [smoke], you do it away from anyone. Secondhand and third-hand smoke is problematic for anyone."

Many researchers don't say there's clear medical evidence that cigarette smoke outdoors can harm people walking by. Advocates say, though, that bans are necessary to protect those vulnerable to smoke exposure.

"Parents at the parks have appreciated it -- that the children don't have to play sports with smoke in their face," East Ridge interim City Manager Frieda Wheeler said.

It has been a year since the town created limited "tobacco use" areas for city property.

Enforcement hasn't been an issue, Wheeler said, since "ninety-nine percent" of park patrons respect the new rules.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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