Albany Times Union: Prohibition lost in a cloud of secondhand smoke

(March 25, 2010)

Albany Times Union logo

First published: Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sasha Higgins knows she is sensitive to secondhand cigarette smoke. Even a little whiff of it often prompts a cough.

Luckily, avoiding it usually isn't a problem. Her mother refrains from smoking at Higgins' home and in her daughter's car. At age 22, the Albany woman is too young to have frequented local nightspots when smoking was allowed inside. Smoking is prohibited inside the Albany County Office Building, where she last year began a career as a social services case worker.

Higgins also manages quite easily to stay away from other places where smokers might be puffing -- with one exception.

The State Street sidewalk outside the county building and the state Comptroller's Office just down the hill, now largely covered by a span of scaffolding that acts as a protective shed for pedestrians, is a daily haven for smokers during coffee breaks and lunch hour.

Despite signs posted outside both buildings noting no-smoking zones close to the entrances -- out to 25 feet for the comptroller's building and 20 feet for the county building -- Higgins says she regularly must walk through tobacco-induced clouds when she exits her building and walks down the hill.

"There are people smoking right in front of the signs," she said. "I feel that, as I'm walking down State Street, I'm inhaling second-hand smoke unnecessarily."

And while she's never been a fan of the State Street air quality, Higgins' concern has intensified recently because she now is six months pregnant.

"I'm breathing for two," she explains. "I'm really tired of this. Who is supposed to be monitoring it? I want to say, 'Can you count? I know this is not 25 feet away from the building.'?"

Late last week, Higgins contacted County Executive Michael Breslin's office to express her concerns and ask for more enforcement of the county's no-smoking zone.

Mary Duryea, a spokeswoman for Breslin, said that after the call on Wednesday, county General Services Commissioner Ed Lynch asked building security guards Thursday to remind smokers of the policy and reinvigorate enforcement.

Higgins put in a call to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's office, as well, and Duryea said county officials also called the comptroller's office.

Higgins said it did seem like the number of smokers lingering around the doors was fewer last Friday. But Friday was a very nice day. It was a tempting time for everyone, including smokers, to stroll farther down the street, out from under the scaffolding and into the sunshine.

The bigger challenge clearly is when the weather is bad.

I think the scaffolding, which was erected last July after chipping brick was discovered during a routine inspection of the 110 State St. comptroller's building facade, is a big contributor to the current problem.

Even if smokers are abiding by the 20-foot and 25-foot zones, the sheltered area under the scaffolds is a natural spot for smoking buddies to huddle when the weather is cold, windy or rainy. The semi-enclosed place also prevents cigarette smoke from dissipating as quickly as it normally would and prevents passers-by from changing course to avoid the pervasive wisps.

As a result, State Street pedestrians wind up walking a smoky gauntlet.

Higgins' concerns are not trifling ones, said Dr. James Crucetti, the Albany County health commissioner. He noted that secondhand smoke has been tied to increased severity of asthma and lower respiratory infections and ear infections in children, as well as increased risks of cancer and heart disease in adults.

While there hasn't been a lot of research done on secondhand smoke outdoors, a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report called The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke found "there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke," Crucetti noted.

And Crucetti agreed that, with the resulting enclosure-like effects of the scaffolding, "we are almost creating a bit of an indoor environment" on State Street.

"It might be prudent to redouble our efforts to discourage congregation at the building entrances," he said. "It would be good to ensure that, especially when the scaffolding is in place, employees are not congregating in an area in front of the buildings where the smoke is gathering in higher concentrations."

Protecting Higgins and her fellow non-smokers without further antagonizing smokers, many of whom already feel put-upon by stringent rules about where they can light up, is a tall order, noted Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communication with the American Lung Association in New York.

"We don't want to vilify the smokers. Smoking is an addiction," he said. "But we want to limit the public's exposure to secondhand smoke and help those smokers who are looking to quit."

Seilback said the Lung Association has endorsed legislation proposed by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Ulster County, that would expand the no-smoking zone to within 50 feet of state office building entrances. But he acknowledged that such a rule would be logistically challenging on State Street.

"When we are talking about downtown areas, it is difficult," Seilback said. "The question is: where should they go?"

Still, I was surprised to learn that other authorities have gone much farther to restrict smoking.

Some California communities, such as Glendale and Calabassas, have prohibited outdoor smoking entirely, unless a specific exception is made.

The General Electric Co. recently announced a worldwide smoking ban on GE property, including outdoors, will take effect in March 2011. And, as Scott Waldman tells us today in his Campus Notebook column on page 2 of this section, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will become a tobacco-free campus on July 1.

Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for DiNapoli, said smokers are reminded, as needed, about the 25-foot requirement, but they do periodically drift back toward the doorways. He also acknowledged that the scaffolding has exacerbated the problem.

"We have been looking at a number of issues created by the scaffolding. Smoking is one of them," he said.

DiNapoli's staff continues to explore options for a lawsuit stemming from discovery of the faulty facade less than eight years after the building opened, Tompkins said, "and I don't anticipate the scaffolding coming down any time soon, for safety reasons."

I think that, at least as long as the scaffolding is there, the county and the comptroller's office should look to beef up smoking restrictions on the sidewalk. Perhaps a single zone should be created for both public buildings, and the no-smoking radius could be increased to a point where pedestrians can better avoid the smoke.

Higgins stresses that she isn't looking to pick a fight with smoking workers. She says she understands that they have a right to light up, but she is very concerned about her own right to breath smoke-free air -- especially during her pregnancy.

"I'm not trying to ban smoking," she said. "I just want people to be respectful."