Ray Gallegos smokes a cigarette on Denver's 16th Street Mall. The Denver City Council is considering a measure to ban smoking and vaping on or near the mall. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)

Proposed smoking, vaping ban for downtown Denver passes first hurdle

A proposed outdoor smoking ban for Denver’s 16th Street Mall advanced easily to a final vote next week after surviving its first floor test Monday in the City Council.

But that doesn’t mean the measure won’t face further challenges.

Some council members say they still have concerns that homeless people or service workers at mall businesses could be affected negatively by the ban. And a couple, Paul Kashmann and Rafael Espinoza, would like to see a sunset date added, essentially making it a pilot.

“I’m thrilled to have a smoking ban,” Kashmann said outside the meeting. “I wish we had one citywide (for public places). But … tickets tend to be issued in an imbalance to homeless people, rather than tourists from Idaho.”

Council President Albus Brooks, the measure’s sponsor, said after the meeting that he was working to address such concerns. But he was confident it would pass.

No members called the proposal out for a separate vote or made comments during the meeting, allowing it to move forward along with other measures that were introduced on first reading.

The final vote is set for Oct. 30.

The “Breathe Easy” ordinance has found wide support from downtown business interests, property owners and public health advocates. But it has sparked strong opposition from homeless advocates who portray the measure as the latest bid by city officials to push less-desired groups off the mall — a charge denied by supporters, who say health is their motivation.

“I feel like we’ve tried to address those concerns to the best of our ability by making it a civil citation,” Brooks said.

The measure would outlaw all kinds of cigarette and tobacco smoking, as well as the use of vaporizers and e-cigarettes, on the public mall. The ban also is intended to make it easier to crack down on marijuana use, which already is prohibited in public spaces.

The new ban would apply from Broadway in Civic Center to Chestnut Place, near Union Station. Smoking and vaping also wouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet northeast and southwest of 16th Street.

Violators could face a $100 fine for the infraction, but Brooks has said the city would roll out the new rule softly, with initial warnings and information given out by police lieu of tickets.

Kashmann said he was considering offering an amendment that would require tracking of tickets issued under the ban. But he doubted there would be support for the sunset provision.

Paul López also is interested in data-tracking. He worries that hourly workers could bear the brunt of enforcement while taking smoke breaks.

Brooks noted that a police official promised quarterly reports to a council committee on how the enforcement is playing out.

Public reaction has ranged from enthusiastic support to characterization of the ban as a “shameful action,” as Mary Helen Sandoval, a Denver resident, described the proposal in an email to council members.

“In my opinion it is unreasonable to prohibit smoking on the mall and (it) will not be met favorably with out-of-town visitors,” she wrote. “Another reason is that I believe it attacks homeless people.”

Ross Swirling of Denver agreed, writing to council members: “We don’t need to give cops even more license to harass homeless people.”

But Arvada resident John “Tony” Jordan was among those who expressed support to the council.

“I work on 16th Street, and it’s an unpleasant ashtray,” Jordan wrote in a message to Brooks. “But while I support and applaud this effort, I caution that enforcement may prove difficult or impossible,” given that police likely will have higher priorities.

Still, he concluded: “Thank you for your efforts in this regard. I’m pretty damn tired of being bullied by smokers.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com