The Ashland City Council voted Tuesday to consider a ban on cigarette smoking and vaping downtown, in places of employment, enclosed areas open to the public and at public entrances and exits — but not without seeking input from downtown businesses.
They decided that the first of two votes required to enact an ordinance must happen no later than the April 19 council meeting.
The proposed ordinance would offer the opportunity to anyone with a liquor license to request a one-year exemption between 8 p.m. and midnight.
Ellen Campbell, an Ashland resident and bed and breakfast owner, supported the ban during public comment, saying she has friends with asthma who get ill going downtown, “I think it’s an ADA (Americans with Disability Act) issue. Smoking is not a right. Breathing is.”
Her position was countered by resident Don Dolan, who said it feels as if it’s intended to remove some people.
“It’s a way of getting rid of homeless, of some people, it’s a slippery slope," Dolan said. "I feel like it may come to the point where I can’t smoke a cigar in my backyard.”
Councilor Carol Voison agreed banning things that could be deemed harmful is a slippery slope leading to unintended consequences.
“The number-one killer of small children is choking on hot dogs," she said. "Maybe we should ban them, too.”
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said there would be warnings given first and opportunities for education about the ordinance before issuing fines. Councilor Pam Marsh said while the ban may be supported, the city has not yet surveyed downtown business owners.
“I think we should make sure we ask first," she said. "I don’t want to make the mistake of moving forward without taking that time.”
Councilor Rich Rosenthal said, “I don’t feel like I’m thriving if I’m walking through smoke. As a person who sat on the Parks Commission when we banned smoking in parks, we had no opposition. If it was up to me, I’d vote 'yes' twice.”
“Why now?” asked Councillor Greg Lemhouse, "Why right now?" He suggested waiting a month to get more feedback from those affected. He also asked “Why just this part of town? If it’s that important, then why not the south end of town too? Why just one part of town?"
The city attorney answered that it was intended for public areas. Many of the businesses in other parts of town are privately owned.
Banning outdoor smoking is not unique to Ashland. New York City and New Orleans passed such prohibitions and smaller cities are considering it as well. Much of the discussion centers around second-hand smoke. But whether such prohibitions curtail the effects of second-hand smoke in outdoor areas is murky.
The California Air Resources Control Board determined the efficacy of banning outdoor smoking for non-smokers is unclear. The 2008 study says it depends on the concentration of smokers at any one place, the level to which they are enclosed, wind direction and distance between smokers and non-smokers. In general, it determined one would have to be standing next to a group of smokers outside for a prolonged period in a confined area to be affected by second-hand smokers in the outdoors. The Air Resources Control Board findings were echoed by a similar study conducted by Stanford.
Still, many argue, including city officials in cities which have enacted a prohibition, that it’s not worth even a small risk to the health of non-smokers to allow for outdoor smoking in areas of population density such as downtown. Proponents also argue that fewer young people will begin smoking or vaping if it’s prohibited in these public places.
The definition of "downtown Ashland" would be the same as in the persistent violator ordinance — basically the area bounded by Lithia Way on the north, Hargadine Street on the south, Gresham/Third streets on the east and Church Street on the west.
The City Council also took another action around smoking, supporting putting a measure on the ballot which imposes a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana. They voted unanimously to approve a first reading of an ordinance establishing a tax on the sale of recreational marijuana and marijuana-infused products within the city limits by referring the tax to the voters of Ashland in the Nov. 8 general election. There is no tax, nor one proposed, on medical marijuana.
By state law the city has to put the tax to the voters and it can’t be more than 3 percent. Right now, the state already has imposed a tax of 25 percent. This city tax would be on top of the state tax.
Councilor Carol Voison said, “We have a lot of tourists. Ashland is a destination place and I think tourists who come from California to buy their marijuana ought to be willing to pay a tax.”
Councilors also reviewed the plastic bag ban a year after establishing it to see how it’s working. The bottom line, according to the Conservation Commission, is that it’s working.
Stores and consumers surveyed favored it and want it to keep going. The fee for paper bags is a bit thornier as some retailers such as specialty stores and small shops continue to struggle with the idea of charging for paper bags and many admitted they aren’t doing it.
While grocery stores have adopted the plan, other shop owners are asking the city to consider an exemption for them. Mayor John Stromberg told the council the Ashland Chamber of Commerce is drafting a letter to the city for reconsideration, but as of now the Ashland City Council made no changes.
Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.