Smoking could be banned on Denver's 16th Street Mall. Smoker Raymond Minton smokes along Tremont Place at the 16th Street Mall on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

Denver considers ban on vaping, smoking in downtown open-air mall

Downtown Denver leaders want residents, workers and tourists to breathe easier on the 16th Street Mall.

Unless they’re smokers. Then they want them to take a little hike before they light up or take a drag from their vape pen.

Forwarding an idea that dates back three years, Denver City Council President Albus Brooks is pushing the council to ban smoking on the entirety of the open-air mall from Broadway to Chestnut Place.

A draft ordinance Brooks is circulating would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes and vaporizers – no matter the substance inside — as well as cigarettes, cigars, stogies and the like. 

“This is a health and safety issue,” Brooks said in a meeting of the council’s safety, housing, education and homelessness committee Wednesday. “And to me it really comes down to the dangers and the effects of secondhand smoke. Someone who does not choose to smoke should not have to live in that environment.”

Dubbing the measure the “Breathe Easy on the Mall” ordinance, Brooks has plenty of backers. Local health officials and representatives from the Downtown Denver Partnership accompanied Brooks Wednesday. Street-level business owners, RTD, and, most importantly to Brooks as the area’s council representative, many people who live near the mall have urged him to snuff out smoking there, he said.

State law bans smoking in restaurants, bars and other shared indoor spaces, mandating smokers move at least 15 feet from the entryways of building before inhaling. Denver law bumps that distance to 25 feet, something that Brooks and advisors with the Denver police admit is difficult to enforce, even under penalty of a $300 fine.

Education will be a key element of “Breathe Easy,” Brooks said. A lit cig could earn a scofflaw a ticket of up to $100 under the law, but that should be a last resort. Brooks anticipates an initial grace period during which police and downtown security officials focus on informing smokers about the rules and pointing them to areas at least 50 feet off 16th Street. Denver Health has pledged $10,000 to producing signs for the education campaign.

“We believe 80 percent of the folks who are smoking on the mall right now will immediately stop smoking because of the education,” Brooks said.

Denver trails many cities and towns around the country in banning smoking in commercial areas. Brooks’ research shows 448 municipalities ban smoking on patios and outdoor dining spaces, areas that would be subject to the mall ban. Along the Front Range, communities including Fort Collins, Boulder, Golden and Littleton have beaten Denver to the punch, making at least parts of their downtown commercial districts smoke free.

Banning vaporizers and e-cigs follows a model set by laws in Golden and Boulder. According to Brooks’ research e-cigarette vapor has been found to contain harmful, potentially cancer-causing chemicals much like secondhand smoke.

Including vapes in the ban is expected to produce a side effect local leaders covet: curtailing marijuana use on the mall.

Officers who regularly patrol 16th Street say electronic smoking devices allow people to mask marijuana use and skirt Colorado laws banning public cannabis consumption, Denver police Lt. Joel Bell said. If the entire mall is no-vaping zone, weed could be bumped out of the area along with tobacco.

“This would give us a tool to make that contact and, of course, educate people about the new rules,” Bell during the meeting Wednesday.

A smoking ban is overdue, said John Desmond, the Downtown Denver Partnership’s executive vice president of downtown environment. The 16th Street Mall is one of Denver chief tourist attractions. Between 40,000 and 80,000 people make their way along the 80-foot wide stretch of public right of way every weekday, Desmond said.

“We have a brand and a reputation as healthy city, and yet our premier destination in downtown allows smoking,” he said. “We think this is an important message to send.”

The ordinance is expected back before the committee Oct. 11, with a first reading before the entire City Council tentatively set for Oct. 23.

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