CapMetro’s policy a breath of fresh air

Larisa Manescu

By the end of February, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority will post signs banning smoking within 15 feet of all 2,700 bus stops in Austin. However, “ban” might be too extreme of a verb. Because the signs have no legal force, they merely ask for smokers to be reasonably conscious of others as they wait for the bus. Despite this lack of force, the move represents one of the recent steps the city is taking against smoking outdoors.

On our own University’s campus, there has been recent movement by the Texas Public Health student organization towards tightening the smoking policy to an absolute ban, following Texas State University declaring itself a completely tobacco-free campus, in which any tobacco use indoors or outdoors is prohibited.

Tobacco use in public indoor environments is now commonly seen as a health threat and generally banned by state governments, but official action regarding outdoor tobacco use is ridden with dispute, bringing into question the power authority figures have over personal liberties.

Austin already has comprehensive smoke-free laws in indoor environments, with exceptions such as bingo halls and restaurants that have effective filtration systems. But the smoking issue becomes increasingly controversial outdoors, where smokers claim secondhand smoke exposure has little effect and that nonsmokers can easily avoid it in the open atmosphere. The debate is divided between the two starkly competing interests: Smokers argue that they have the right to their personal freedom and that no law should infringe on it, while nonsmokers reason that secondhand smoke is a negative externality, as it inevitably affects vulnerable bystanders. Smokers fear that imposing outdoor smoking bans will open the door for the “nanny” government to infringe on other rights, while nonsmokers believe it is the government’s duty to enforce public health policy that protect all residents.

The main factor in implementing outdoor smoking policy should be the proximity of the smoker. Outdoor secondhand smoke exists, but it doesn’t travel. The studies that have focused on the effect of outdoor smoking have pointed out that while cigarette smoke lingers indoors, it quickly dissipates outdoors as soon as the cigarette is put out.

In the first comprehensive study examining the effects of secondhand smoke outdoors, conducted in 2007, Stanford researcher Neil Klepeis concluded, “Our data also show that if you move about six feet away from an outdoor smoker, your exposure levels are much lower.” The general conclusion of the study was that secondhand smoke in stationary outdoor environments, such as benches and restaurant patios, was equally a threat as secondhand smoke exposure indoors.

According to this revealing data, CapMetro is introducing a rational policy by asking smokers to step away from the waiting area of a bus stop to light up. However, the idealistic ambition of the Texas Public Health student organization to impose a ban on all tobacco use seems unnecessary, considering the existing standard regulations the University has in place: Smoking is banned in and within 20 feet of all buildings, and designated smoking areas are widely available near all residence halls, the stadium and other buildings. These are practical measures that respect both the rights of the smoker while protecting the well being of the nonsmoker. While the organization holds the admirable determination to reduce tobacco use in general, as it is indisputably a detrimental habit, banning it altogether would not have this effect. Banning tobacco use would not motivate current smokers to quit nor would it prevent students from experimenting with tobacco, since this experimentation typically takes place off campus in private residences, not on the streets.

Public health junior Thomas Haviland told The Daily Texan, “I don’t feel it’s too much to ask that smokers make the effort to ensure they’re not exposing others in their environment to secondhand smoke.” This implication that there is no effort for consciousness and respect in terms of outdoor public smoking is a faulty one. Placing a ban on all tobacco use on campus with the notion that secondhand smoke is a threatening epidemic ignores the fact that the existing policy already widely safeguards the nonsmoking population by restricting stationary areas from smokers and offering designated areas that nonsmokers can avoid. Future policy regarding outdoor smoking must be enacted realistically to simultaneously address the interests and concerns of both smokers and nonsmokers.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations and global studies freshman.