Yes, smoking is bad for you, but should Denver ban it on the 16th Street Mall?

Denver Council President Albus Brooks says his proposed “Breath Easy” ban on smoking and vaping would be a crucial step in driving down smoking rates.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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The 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  16th street mall; sixteenth street; central business district; downtown; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; cbd;

The 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Council President Albus Brooks says his proposed “Breath Easy” ban on smoking and vaping would be a crucial step in driving down smoking rates in Denver, which remain significantly higher than some other large cities.

“You’re gonna be shocked at how behind Denver is in addressing this issue,” Brooks said as he introduced other council members to his proposed new ordinance at a committee meeting on Wednesday. The meeting was informational, and there was no vote. If approved by the council, the proposal would charge a $100 fine to anyone caught smoking cigarettes or using a vaporizing device in the pedestrian area.

Brooks wants Denver to follow the lead of cities like Golden and Boulder, which have severely restricted smoking in their downtown areas.

“This is a very contained area … and we know that it’s the most populated area of the city,” he said.

Some downtown residents also want smoking banned in parks such as Commons and Skyline, but Brooks is keeping it to the Mall right now, he said. An attempt at a broader ban — such as in parks around the city — would be a much lengthier and more difficult conversation, he said.

Denver Police Department would be in charge of issuing the tickets under the proposed ban. Brooks said the tobacco ban would make it easier for cops to bust sneaky stoners who are using small vaporizers for marijuana, too.

“We don’t know what they’re smoking,” he said.

About 17 percent of local adults smoke, compared to New York City and Seattle’s 10 percent, according to stats compiled by Denver Health.  Both of those cities ban smoking in all of their parks, unlike Denver.

“We are actually struggling when it comes to tobacco smoking,” said Chris Bui of Denver Public Health. However, Denver’s also fairly in line with national numbers on smoking.

Who likes it and dislikes it:

Brooks’ supporters include influential Denver groups such as the Downtown Denver Partnership, Visit Denver and RTD, as well as the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association — but he also has taken some questions and criticism.

The Colorado Restaurant Association hasn’t committed to support the bill, he said. And Councilman Paul López asked whether the ban would just add one more worry for the busy commuters who use the 16th Street Mall as a transit corridor, not a tourist destination.

“They’re just trying to catch a drag before they go to work or after,” he said.

Benjamin Dunning, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud, warned that the ban could become an indirect tool to sweep homeless people off the Mall. Eliminating ashtrays would leave fewer “snipes,” or leftover cigarettes, to be collected, he said.

“The smoking ban on the 16th St Mall is a ruse to move homeless folks out of the area,” he wrote.

Though city officials denied this was the motive, Boulder’s smoking ban had the effect of moving homeless people out of central park areas that the city was trying to revitalize.

Brooks said that “suits and dresses” made up the vast majority of smokers on the 16th Street Mall, and that the bill had no animus toward anyone. One motivation for him was his recent diagnosis of bone cancer and subsequent recovery.

The cause of his own illness is impossible to know, he said. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that some 2.5 million non-smokers have died since 1964 from health problems related from tobacco smoke exposure.

Meanwhile, on the internet, an earlier Denverite story about the proposal attracted more than 300 comments on Reddit. That turned into a conversation about homelessness, the merits of the Mall and the health effects of vaporizers.

Brooks’ memo on the ban argues that e-cigarette vapors are not “harmless” because they contain nicotine and sometimes contain harmful or unknown ingredients.

Smoking (but not vaporizing) is already banned within 25 feet of building entrances in Denver. But since the Mall is about 80 feet wide in many places, that leaves plenty of room to smoke.

According to Brooks’ memo:

  • Eleven other Colorado municipalities ban smoking in patios and outdoor dining areas. Denver does not.
  • Nine others ban smoking in public transit waiting areas. Denver does not.
  • Nineteen others ban smoking in parks. Denver bans marijuana, but not cigarettes or vaporizers.