On Oct. 6 the Aldermanic Human Services Committee approved the hospital’s request to ban smoking on the publicly owned sections of Chapel, Orchard and George streets and Sherman Avenue, and sent the request to the full Board of Aldermen, which will vote on it Nov. 5. At the same meeting, Ward 20 Alderman Charles Blango, who chairs the committee, decided to delay action on a similar request by Masjid al-Islam, a neighboring mosque on George Street, until the Board of Aldermen’s Nov. 5 meeting.
“I didn’t want to open up a Pandora’s Box,” Blango said of his decision, citing his reluctance to set a precedent for allowing non-medical, private institutions such as the mosque to restrict smoking on public property.
When Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah, who is a member of Masjid al-Islam, submitted in late September the original proposal to ban smoking around the hospital, the proposal banned smoking on the sidewalks around both the hospital and the mosque. In late September, the Board of Aldermen unanimously voted down the proposal because it wanted to hold a public hearing on the issue. The board sent the request to the Human Services Committee for review because it had done so for a similar proposal by Yale-New Haven Hospital earlier this year.
At the committee’s Oct. 6 meeting, a number of aldermen asked Shah why he had included the mosque in the proposal, and Shah said he feared the ban would deter smokers displaced from St. Raphael’s from smoking in front of the mosque.
But Blango introduced an amendment to separate the two areas because people on the committee said they had concerns about legal problems that could arise if the ban were approved, Blango said. Blango also asked to see a legal opinion from an outside expert on any potential legal problems that could arise from the mosque’s request.
The debate about the appropriateness of the city’s efforts to regulate smoking on public property is playing out on streets surrounding St. Raphael’s, where half a dozen employees and patients interviewed expressed mixed feelings about the pending ban.
Al Johnson, who works in St. Raphael’s Information Technology department, said he hopes the hospital ban will be finalized so he can enjoy cleaner air and sidewalks.
“I think it’s great,” Johnson said of the ban. “Every day I have to step over all these cigarette butts to get into the building.”
But an employee of St. Raphael’s for more than 20 years, who asked not to be identified because he said he feared repercussions from the hospital’s administration, spoke out against the ban.
“They didn’t ask anybody,” the employee said during a cigarette break outside the hospital’s main entrance on Chapel Street. “Would it be healthier for me to quit smoking? Yes. But do I appreciate having it dictated to me by the administration? Absolutely not.”
For employees who smoke, the hospital is planning to offer discounts on smoking cessation classes and nicotine replacement therapy to its employees, according to literature the hospital distributed as part of an informational campaign.
Leaving an appointment at the hospital, sisters Ina and Emria Webb said they held split views on the ban.
“Secondhand smoke is dangerous, and you’re bound to get a whiff of it here,” Ina Webb said. But her sister Emria said people should be able to smoke wherever they want.
But even the four supporters of the hospital’s ban who were interviewed said they were uneasy about extending it to the front of a nearby mosque but did not cite any specific concerns.
James Jones, the imam at the Masjid al-Islam, said the mosque’s request is not just an attempt to deter St. Raphael’s employees from crossing the street to smoke in front of the mosque.
“We’ve always been interested in the common good, and we know that smoking harms the community,” he said.
Jones added that while he understands Blango’s concerns, a citywide sidewalk ban might not be a bad idea.
“It wasn’t so long ago that you could smoke on airplanes. Things change,” Jones said.
But for now, Blango said the factor determining whether the city allows a private institution to ban smoking on surrounding public property should be whether there are available alternatives.
“If you’ve got a medical emergency, you’ve got no choice but to go to the nearest hospital. You shouldn’t have to breathe in smoke in that situation,” he said.
The sidewalk ban at St. Raphael’s, which Blango says is certain to pass when the board meets Nov. 5, is part of a smoke-free initiative by the Connecticut Hospital Association, and is similar to a ban Yale-New Haven Hospital got approved in January of this year.
The Masjid al-Islam has operated at its 624 George St. location since 1995 and has 300 members.