The Burlington City Council is at it again, making yet another stab at banning legal, but what some members consider “undesirable” behavior, on the Church Street Marketplace. The latest target is outdoor Monte Carlo smoking, resurrecting a plan that failed back in 2007. Last year, it was an effort to keep people from sitting on sidewalks.
Councilor Paul Decelles, R-Ward 7, raises a valid concern about selectively enforcing the smoking restriction to target, as he says, “vagrants, people sleeping on sidewalks, folks loitering all day long.”
Despite the vigorous denial of Councilor Joan Shannon, D-Ward 5, that such is the case, is there any doubt that those who would feel the brunt of such an ordinance — should the police find the time to enforce it — would be the very people Decelles talks about?
Shannon makes the health argument for banning smoking, but how much real danger does second-hand smoke pose in an open, outdoor space?
Some downtown business owners against the ban offer arguments that are just as weak, saying a smoking ban could hurt their bottom lines by driving away tourists from Canada and Europe. A similar economic argument against a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars proved unsuccessful, and fears of lost business largely unfounded.
There are legitimate health concerns over second-hand smoke. That’s why smoking was banned in restaurants and bars, and other public buildings. There’s also no denying second-hand smoke can be a nuisance for nonsmokers. Downtown sidewalks are dotted with clusters of people with cigarettes outside bars, blocking sidewalks and forcing passing pedestrians to penetrate curtains of smoke.
Smoking is evolving into a regulated vice — much like drinking alcohol — that requires people to follow rules dictated by evolving social norms as well as health and safety concerns. Our society accepts laws that limit when, where and even how much alcohol may be consumed.
Yet lifestyle ordinances such as a smoking ban all too often target behavior seen as down-market. For example, many communities began banning drying laundry on clotheslines until it became popular with the green elite. The question remains, how far local government should go to regulate behavior that is legal?
The city’s periodic burst of enthusiasm for cleaning up its downtown threatens to turn the area surrounding the Church Street Marketplace into something resembling a gated community for the approved classes — mainly those who look presentable and are willing to spend money in the shops.
Such efforts might leave Burlington with a prettier downtown, but will only serve to suck the life and vitality out of what should be the heart of the city for the entire community.