The city of Charleston next week will consider enacting a “tobacco-free zone” around the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper Hospital, effectively outlawing smoking in public for blocks around.
If the ordinance is approved, smoking would be banned from all public spaces and sidewalks throughout the hospital district. Violators would face fines between $10 and $25 every time they’re caught lighting up or even walking through cigarette in-hand.
Smokers interviewed Friday said they didn’t like the idea, calling it another example of government overstepping its bounds to further regulate an activity that remains legal.
“This is public property, we have rights,” said MUSC sinus patient Isaac Baughman, 24, of Summerville, as he lit a cigarette on Ashley Avenue. The sidewalk nearby was littered with dozens of left-behind cigarette butts, most stomped flat.
The city’s Planning Department will introduce the measure at Tuesday’s council meeting at the request of leadership from both hospitals.
While smoking already is banned on the MUSC campus and at Roper, MUSC President Ray Greenberg and Roper-St. Francis Healthcare President/CEO David Dunlap both say extending the zone wider can provide additional benefits.
In a letter to Mayor Joe Riley, who supports the effort, both focused on the downside of what’s happened since smokers were forced away from their respective hospitals’ main grounds.
“While (anti-smoking) efforts have benefitted many, the migration of smokers to public sidewalks and properties adjacent to Roper and MUSC has created an unhealthy environment for those who must walk through these areas to visit our campuses, as well as for private citizens and business owners living and working near our campuses,” they said.
“While we have asked each of our employees to respect our neighbors and not smoke in front of their properties or leave discarded cigarette trash, we continue to have problems in the areas that are not owned by either MUSC or Roper,” the letter continued.
The ban would cover any form of lit tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars and pipes, in a roughly 10-block area. Enforcement would be done primarily by MUSC’s Department of Public Safety and other hospital security.
Under the ordinance, compliance would be primarily enforced through voluntary measures to include a no-smoking publicity campaign, education and issuing warnings “where appropriate.”
The ban would not apply to people smoking in vehicles moving through the restricted area.
City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, whose district includes the downtown hospital area, said he supports the ban as a means of respecting the rights of patients “and potential patients.”
Councilman Dean C. Riegel said Friday he is uncomfortable with the idea of any attempt to restrict personal freedom but added he will probably support the ordinance, citing overriding health concerns tied to smoking.
Multiple entities around the two hospitals have also filed letters of support, including the Ashley Hall school and various local businesses.
One letter, written by the president of the Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association, said lighting up is so commonplace around Ashley Avenue that parts of the sidewalk essentially serves as MUSC’s substitute “Cancer Ward” for groups of smokers who take their daily breaks.
It is not clear yet how strong any opposition might be. South Carolina ACLU Executive Director Victoria Middleton said she didn’t have enough information to weigh in on the city’s proposal but acknowledged public authorities have a right to regulate in the interest of public health.
Still, most smokers Friday didn’t like what they were hearing, calling the proposal further erosion of rights.
“I should be able to smoke wherever I want,” said MUSC kidney patient Fred White Jr., of Manning, who at age 40 said he’s been smoking for nearly 30 years.
Attempts to interview some of the badge-wearing MUSC employees seen taking cigarette breaks at midday Friday were unsuccessful. Most proved too shy to discuss their smoking habits during breaks not far from the doors to their workplaces.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.