Distrct of Columbia (D.C.) - to toughen smoking laws..

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January 5, 2010 - The D.C. Council will move Tuesday, January 5th to toughen the District's smoking laws with new provisions targeting underage tobacco use and lighting up on public sidewalks, part of a broad bill that could portend a more rigid ban down the road.

Current D.C. smoking laws: Banned in all workplaces, Prohibited in most bars and restaurants and a Cigarette tax now $2.50 per pack.

The omnibus smoking legislation, up for the first of two council votes, establishes civil penalties for minors who buy cigarettes, bars street vendors from selling tobacco products, bans the sale of "blunt wraps" often used to roll marijuana and allows commercial property owners to post signs banning smoking outside their buildings. It does not outlaw smoking outdoors. But the idea, at least, is on the table. (Boston's ban on blunt wraps stands..)

"You could say no smoking on public ways within a certain distance of residences or businesses, something of that nature," Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh said last month as the judiciary committee, on which she serves, discussed the bill. "I could even support that."

Mendelson and Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander introduced the bill now before the council in late July 2009.

The legislation installs a $50 civil penalty for minors who purchase or attempt to purchase tobacco products. There also is a $200 fine for youth who falsely represent their age. And there is a $250 penalty for street vendors caught selling cigarettes to anybody. "One less sale of a tobacco product to a teen could mean that one less teen grows up to be a smoker," Bob Summersgill, a member of Smokefree D.C., told the judiciary panel during its public hearing on the bill.

The aspect of the bill that has received the most attention might be its most irrelevant. Any commercial property owner or first-floor retail tenant, under the measure, could post signs stating that smoking was barred within 25 feet of their building, including the sidewalk. But there is no enforcement mechanism nor a penalty for a violation. "I think we can't get any further unless you want to ban smoking on sidewalks," at-large Councilman Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee of Public Safety and the Judiciary, said last month.

Smokers who congregate outside office buildings, their smoke seeping through doors and windows, defeat the purpose of the smoke-free-workplaces law, Summersgill said. The provision, he said, is "sensible." But without a penalty, Cheh said, the law is "phony." If another council member were to draft a "thoughtful" bill banning smoking outright on the sidewalk, she said Monday, she could support it.

To flatly prohibit smoking outside businesses and residences "doesn't leave a whole lot of other sidewalks," Mendelson said last month. Cheh replied: "I know it would be unfortunate, but that's the way it would be."

Reference: D.C. Council takes up tighter smoking restrictions by Michael Neibauer (mneibauer@washingtonexaminer.com), Examiner Staff Writer, 1/5/2009.

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