Charleston City Council took a first step toward outlawing smoking for blocks around the downtown hospital district, giving initial approval to establish a special “Tobacco-Free Zone.”

Mayor Joe Riley and others called the move good public-health policy, while others on council said a slippery slope is now in play.

One argument aired at Tuesday’s council meeting is that the city has opened the door for all sorts of entities to begin asking that smoking be banned on public spaces and sidewalks in front of their operations as well.

“We’re dealing with public streets that are owned and paid for by every citizen, smoker and non-smoker alike,” councilman Aubrey Alexander said in speaking against the proposal.

Councilman Robert Mitchell added that the prohibition arguably could be considered an attack on hard-fought human rights, since the effort means a freedom is being lost through “the way we are taking away the sidewalks.”

The ordinance, which passed first reading at Tuesday’s council meeting, creates a fine between $10 and $25 for anyone caught smoking in about a 10-block zone around Roper Hospital and the Medical University of South Carolina. It faces two more readings, probably in January, before becoming city law.

The effort came at the request of Roper and MUSC, whose leadership said second-hand smoking and the habit of smokers littering sidewalks with butts has created a health hazard and litter nuisance.

“This is not about denying people their right to smoke,” MUSC President Ray Greenberg told council Tuesday. Instead, the bigger issue is preventing patients from having to “walk through clouds of smoke to get to their health care provider,” Greenberg said. “We just want them to move a little bit away from the patients at risk.”

MUSC and Roper have gone smoke-free, but both campuses daily feature patients and staff members who duck outside to light up, many of whom drop butts on the ground afterward or congregate near doorways.

While first reading passed on a tight voice vote, members of council agreed that the ordinance still needs to be tweaked, with some saying the smoke-free zone is just too big, stretching from parts of Calhoun Street to the Septima P. Clark Parkway.

Councilman James Lewis suggested a more fitting northern boundary would be around Bee Street.

One reason the size was drawn so large is so that all of the Roper and MUSC office spaces could be incorporated, officials said. City staff also said some locals encouraged the zone to be even larger than presented.

If the zone does take effect, supporters say fines won’t be the goal, and that enforcement could be accomplished through warnings and education. The ban does not apply to anyone smoking in vehicles moving through the restricted area.

Riley said that national health research and the mood of the country support taking steps to curtail medical patients from coming into contact with the dangers of second-hand smoke.

It’s “sound public policy,” he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.