It’s Time for a Real Crackdown on Smoking in Pennsylvania

Photo: iStock/Robert Herhold

Photo: iStock/Robert Herhold

We like to talk about the cleaner, more progressive Philadelphia — hammocks on the waterfront, yoga in the park, open streets, bike sharing — but the truth is that you still can’t walk a block without catching a whiff — or worse — of cigarette smoke.

Eight years after Mayor Nutter proudly proclaimed victory against cigarettes and two years after his edict against smoking in city-owned parks went into effect, Philadelphia still has the highest adult smoking rate among the country’s ten biggest cities. One recent Monday, I took a stroll after lunch, encountering smoker after smoker huddling in the shadows of skyscrapers. I paid a visit to McGlinchey’s, that legendary dive bar on 15th Street, where I could only find one non-smoking customer in the mid-afternoon crowd of 20 or so. My lungs full of carcinogens, I went to Rittenhouse Square to purge them. During my brief visit, I counted no fewer than 20 smokers flouting the park smoking ban, no doubt tossing their spent butts to the ground and dirtying up our beautiful green space in the process.

Outside the city, the situation only gets worse. There are hundreds of smoking bars in the surrounding counties, and thousands of bars where you can still smoke throughout the state. Of the counties surrounding Philadelphia, Delaware County has the highest per capita rate of bars that allow smoking. Just take a walk around blue-collar Delco towns like Upper Darby and you’ll find no shortage of bars where you can smoke the night away.

See, the Pennsylvania ban is rife with exemptions. If you own a bar or restaurant that makes less than 20 percent of its revenue from food — or, at least, if that’s what you claim — smoking isn’t a problem. Private clubs like fire halls, VFWs and after-hours bars are exempted as well, as are cigar bars and cigar stores. The casinos are as smoky as you’d expect, and even nursing homes bizarrely fall outside the smoking ban. The list goes on.

And yet, if you travel outside of the commonwealth, you can find anti-smoking havens all around you. New Jersey prohibits smoking in all restaurants and bars, and Delaware won’t even let you smoke in the casinos. New York is German-efficient about its smoking regulations, and both Ohio and Maryland have smoking bans that make us look like we’re stuck in the 1950s. West Virginia is the only adjacent state without a statewide smoking ban — so congratulations, Pennsylvania: You’re incrementally better than West Virginia.

One person who wants to catch us up with the civilized world is Montgomery County-based state Senator Tom Murt, who last year introduced a bill that seeks to eliminate the state’s many exemptions. (Yes, you’d still be allowed to smoke at your home and inside your car.) Of course, Harrisburg being Harrisburg — I mean, we just got that budget through — Pennsylvania isn’t likely get less smoky in the immediate future. Murt’s bill was enthusiastically passed by the Health Committee last November, but no full vote has been scheduled, and there’s no telling what the legislation will look like once the powerful tobacco, hospitality, and casino lobbies have their way with it.

“We’re expecting a lengthy and complicated debate,” says Murt. “When we passed the original law in 2008, that was a major step forward, but there was always an understanding that this issue would be revisited in the future.”

It can’t come soon enough. Smoking remains one of our most dire public health threats, and if you pay taxes in Pennsylvania, you’re contributing to close to $2 billion in annual Medicaid dollars that go to smoking-related health care.

“It’s something we have to do,” says Murt. “It’s something that people want.”

He seems to be right about that, as I had a hard time finding even bar smokers with strong opinions against the law. By now, even the worst chain-smoker gets that smoking is a really bad idea, and it’s not like any reasonable person would try to assert that smoking is an unalienable right.

Some bar owners, of course, aren’t thrilled, worrying that their revenues will be extinguished along with the cigarettes.

“I’m going to lobby against the state measure,” says longtime McGlinchey’s owner Sheldon “Shelly” Sokol, himself a non-smoker. Sokol explains that back when the current ban went into effect, there was a time during which McGlinchey’s went non-smoking while the exemption was being processed, and sales slumped. “The kind of people we get as customers, they just like to smoke. Smoking and drinking go together.”

I asked Sokol how he felt about the proposed new ban on a purely human, and not financial, level.

“Well, it does get pretty smoky in here,” he admits. “But listen, everybody knows that smoking is not good for you, and if that’s what people want to do, so be it.”

Another bar owner I spoke with in smoke-filled Upper Darby felt similarly. “My clientele, they’ll just drink at home if they can’t sit here and smoke,” he insists. “I don’t see them hanging around out front.”

And then there are owners like Jack Prince, who wasn’t sure what would happen when his dive bar went non-smoking. Prince owns Bob & Barbara’s on South Street, just minutes from McGlinchey’s. When the smoking ban was first announced, Bob & Barbara’s was as much a smoking bar as McGlinchey’s, but he chose to skip the exemption. At first, his most diehard smokers complained, saying it would change the feel of the place, and fled for McGlinchey’s and other smoking bars. But then Bob & Barbara’s got even busier than it was before. Why? Prince says that all those people who used to stay away because Bob & Barabra’s was so smoky now could come and enjoy themselves without having to visit the dry-cleaner’s the next day.

“And now, if people want to smoke, they just take it to the sidewalk,” says Prince. “It’s funny, because you’ll have two people sitting at opposite ends of the bar, not talking, but then they go outside to smoke, and they make a new friend. I kinda like it.”

Similarly affected was the 1,300-member Willow Grove VFW. Halls like VFWs are typically some of the smokiest places you can find, so when the 2008 ban passed, most of the smoking members expected that the hall would get an exemption and remain their smoking mecca. But that wasn’t the case — post general manager Roger Myers had other ideas.

“We were remodeling the inside of our building with new drapes and paintings and things like that, and I thought that it was a good time to kick the smoking out,” explains Myers. “We definitely had some opposition, but now that we’re non-smoking and selling a lot more weddings and banquets and everybody sees the kind of money that we’re bringing in with that, everybody is cool. They’re more than happy to go outside.”

But even if the business at smoking bars does decline once they inevitably go non-smoking, so be it. It’s 2016, and it’s time for a change. In the meantime, smoke ’em if you got ’em. Or, maybe better, don’t.

Should Philly Ban Smoking at Bus Shelters?

An academic study found that waiting for the bus is so awful that it can actually compel your mind to lie to you. Every minute that you wait for the bus feels the same as 4.4 minutes actually riding the bus.

That got us thinking: Should Philadelphia ban smoking at bus shelters? After all, being hot-boxed by cigarette fumes must make the wait feel even longer (unless you’re the person lighting up), right? If Philadelphia can make the wait more pleasant by banning smoking at bus shelters, maybe SEPTA will attract more riders.

The bigger potential benefit, of course, is that the measure could discourage smoking just a little bit more. Philadelphia’s smoking rate fell to an all-time low in 2014-15, in part, health officials believe, because of the city’s ban on smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces, parks and several other locations.

“Looking at the robust literature on the issue, smoking bans not only protect people from secondhand smoke, but also give smokers an additional reason to quit,” said Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning for Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health. Read more »

The Brief: Why No One in Philly Smokes Anymore

1. Philly’s smoking rate has fallen to a record low.

The gist: CBS3 reports that “the percentage of adult Philadelphians who smoke has dropped from 27.3 percent in 2008 to 22.4 percent in 2014-15, according to data from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey.” Even more impressive: A drop took place among all ethnicities and socioeconomic groups in the city, and it happened after smoking rates went up in 2000 and 2008. Also, the recent smoking rate doesn’t factor in the full impact of Philly’s new cigarette tax, which has likely caused smoking to become even less common. Read more »

Morning Headlines: Smoking Bans Rolling Out in Philly Condo Buildings

smokingIf you’re a smoker, you know firsthand that there are fewer and fewer places for you to take a hassle-free drag these days. Now, if you’re a condo owner in a Center City high-rise like Society Hill Towers or the Rittenhouse, you can’t even smoke in the privacy of your own home. According to a report in The Inquirer, smoking bans in luxury buildings are becoming a trend across the nation and Philadelphia has started to join the crowd.

For one, there are some obvious health issues for those exposed to secondhand smoke–a noble cause for a condo association to undertake. It also comes down to the resale value of the unit itself, something Allan Domb backed up, calling it a “tough sell” if there’s a lingering “odor” from a smoker.

Current owners who smoke in buildings that institute a no-smoking policy would be “grandfathered” in and allowed to smoke in-unit, provided they register with the building. We’re not going to lie, it seems like a bigger pain than standing outside the pub in 10-degree weather to enjoy a cigarette:

If there are complaints against grandfathered smokers for smoke and/or odor escaping from their unit into hallways or other units, those smokers must caulk and seal gaps in their units, and may have to buy special air-filter machines. If that doesn’t resolve the complaints, grandfathered status can be revoked and they can be subject to fines and sanctions.

Condo buildings are banning smoking, even in residents’ own units [The Inquirer]

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No More Half-Measures: Let’s Ban Smoking in Pennsylvania


Dom Costa is a wimp.

The state representative from Allegheny has introduced a bill that would ban Pennsylvanians from smoking while driving — as long as a child under the age of 12 is in the car with them. Get caught? You’re fined $250.

“Second-hand smoke poses a series of serious health risks to individuals,” Costa says, “and children are among the most vulnerable because they are still developing physically, have higher breathing rates than adults, and have little control over their indoor environments.”

He’s right. It’s unfair — evil, even — to poison children as the byproduct of a hobby. So it’s time to go a few steps further than Costa is proposing.

It’s time to ban tobacco smoking in Pennsylvania, now and forever.

Read more »

Jersey Shore Beach Smoking Ban Bill Has a Gigantic Loophole


A bill that would ban smoking on New Jersey’s beaches has taken another step closer to becoming a reality, but with a loophole big enough for a Sea Isle ice truck.

The beach smoking ban bill, which was introduced last summer, would prohibit smoking in New Jersey’s parks and beaches. It just passed the state senate, but with an amendment tacked on at the last minute that would allow towns to set up designed smoking areas on up to 20% of their beaches.

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Mayor Nutter’s Public Park Smoking Ban Is Pointless Nanny-State Grandstanding


Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter seems to be in the middle of an existential crisis. Now, normally this confrontation with life, the universe, and everything is perfectly natural and OK. That is, most men react to these crises with something harmless like impulse-buying a sports car.

The problem here, though, is that Nutter is taking at least 375,000 Philadelphians along for his ride into the “What’s the point?” abyss with his new executive order “banning” smoking in public parks.

Nutter’s the guy who callously slashed library funding by $8 million in 2008, eliminating 117 library jobs. Later, Nutter tearfully “corrected” his wrong by putting back a fraction ($2.5 million) of the original cut in his proposed budget this year. He also proposed the new property tax valuations, called the AVI. It’s arguably a necessary fix but nobody’s happy about it, particularly because the AVI seems at best complicated and at worst arbitrary. And, Nutter’s the guy currently presiding over a police force disproportionately arresting black people while seemingly ignoring white people violating those very same laws.

Basically, Nutter seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis because he sure as hell looks a lot like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg right now.

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Philadelphia Bans Smoking in Public Parks

Thinking of lighting up a smoke in Rittenhouse Square? You can still do it, but you’ll be breaking the law.

On Tuesday, Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law a bill banning smoking in the city’s parks. Per the mayor’s own words, the ban is “effective immediately.”

Nutter says there are no talks in expanding a smoking ban to public city streets. The new park smoking ban comes for the usual reasons governments pass them: Concerns over secondhand smoke, general environmental worries and as an encouragement for smokers to quit.

“Eliminating smoking in public parks is a commonsense policy that clearly aligns with our City’s existing smoke-free regulations for recreation centers, pools and playgrounds. Specifically, this policy protects the environment and the health and wellness of our citizens,” the mayor said in a release.

The ban will be enforced by staffers in city parks and essentially has no penalty associated with it. Per a city press release, the Parks and Recreation and Public Health departments will also be doing “No butts about it” PSAs.

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