Smoke-Free Public Places: How Smoke-Free Legislation Protects Citizens and Cities

Smoking bans in public places are widespread in the U.S., but while most of them protect people from smoke in indoor locations, the situation outdoors is very different. Although the risks from second-hand smoke are generally reduced outside, issues like trash from cigarettes still causes a big problem.

Second-hand smoke is widely recognized as a risk to the health of people close to smokers, and as a result, indoor smoking bans are common throughout the U.S. and in much of the world. However, smoking outside is still widely permitted, and although the risks of second-hand smoke exposure are notably reduced, there are many other downsides to smoking for the area when it comes to litter and the overall environment, especially for families. When you take your family to the park, you don’t want to have to contend with cigarette butts all over the floor or periodic wafts of smoke from people in the vicinity. For these situations, enacting legislation to ensure smoke-free public places could be a big benefit to the non-smoking majority of citizens.

Cigarette Butt Litter: A Big Problem in Public Places

Every time a smoker has a cigarette, he or she is left with a butt. These butts should be disposed of properly in trash cans, but this often isn’t the case. In fact, it’s estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butt litter is tossed onto the ground each year around the world. Cigarette butt litter and litter from other tobacco products accounts for between 22% and 36% of the visible litter in towns and cities. As well as being non-biodegradable and containing toxic chemicals, this trash detracts from the appeal of the public space: a cigarette butt-filled park is hardly as inviting as a pristine, well-preserved one.

Cigarette butt litter also costs a lot to clean up. One study estimates that towns and cities in the U.S. pay between $3 and $16 million to clean trash up from public streets each year. Using the percentage of this trash composed of cigarette butts and other tobacco product litter, outdoor smoking costs towns and cities between half a million and $6 million, estimated based on a city the size of San Francisco. This cost could be covered by adding around $0.20 onto the price of a pack of cigarettes, according to the authors.

Smoke-Free Public Spaces and Second-Hand Smoke

Second-hand smoke when you’re indoors poses several well-established risks to your health, but what about when you’re outdoors? There is only limited evidence on how much of a risk this is likely to pose, and most of the studies available so far just look at your exposure to particles emitted from cigarettes. This is an important marker for how much smoke you’ll be exposed to, but it isn’t as useful as directly looking at health consequences for people exposed to outdoor second-hand smoke.

A systematic review of the evidence on second-hand smoke exposure outdoors found that your expectations regarding outdoor exposure to smoke are probably about right. The studies show that you’re exposed to quite a lot of smoke when you’re within a couple of feet of a smoker, or if you’re downwind of somebody smoking, but your exposure decreases a lot when you move further away. If you’re in a partially enclosed outdoor location or there are more smokers around you, the amount of particular matter you’re exposed to will increase.

Smoke Free Public Places and Comfort

While the risks associated with outdoor second-hand smoke are probably much lower than those from indoor second-hand smoke – as long as you aren’t right beside a smoker – the discomfort it causes is still a factor. Parents taking their children to the park, for example, would feel much more comfortable if they weren’t exposed to any second-hand smoke, and this should be considered when cities think about instituting more smoke-free public places.

While banning all smoking outdoors would unnecessarily impinge on the rights of smokers, having some outdoor smoke-free areas would give non-smokers places they can go where there will be no risk or discomfort at all from second-hand smoke exposure.

The Benefits of Creating Smoke-Free Public Places and How to Do it

Although keeping indoor locations smoke-free should be the priority, there are many benefits to creating outdoor smoke-free public places. Firstly, the issue of cigarette butt litter would be drastically reduced, and secondly, non-smokers would feel more comfortable spending time in public places where people can’t smoke.

A related benefit to creating smoke-free public places is that it encourages more smokers to quit. When bringing in these policies, one way to help smokers would be to encourage the use of alternative, smoke-free nicotine products and medications for quitting. For example, if you were to ban smoking in a park, but allow people to use smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes, it would simultaneously protect the health of non-smokers but also allow people to continue using nicotine if they want to.

Creating smoke-free public places outdoors is still a controversial issue, but with so many potential benefits, it’s something more and more towns and cities should seriously consider.