Eric can often be found between two shops on State Street, sitting on the bare sidewalk with a can and damp cardboard sign below his feet that reads: “homeless, live in a tent, can’t work, anything helps, please and thank you, God bless.”
He’s a regular fixture downtown and stays in the same area between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday. He lives in Berlin, Vermont behind Price Chopper at a small campsite in the woods. He says he became homeless after his wife and two kids died in a car accident.
Eric is also a smoker, he smokes around ten cigarettes per day. Smoking is something he enjoys doing and that he knows he’s allowed to do. He states that he hasn’t encountered a lot of problems with non-smokers approaching him, but he says that one store owner asked him to move away from their store.
There are no laws prohibiting smoking on the streets, but it is illegal to smoke inside a business, a store, or in certain restricted areas. Smoking is not permitted in most enclosed areas. There is a law called the Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans all lighted tobacco products in almost all “places of public access.” This includes places of public business that serve people. You are allowed to smoke in public outdoor facilities but under certain regulations. Most states have similar laws, but the real question is if they follow them or not.
Officer Chad Bean, a police officer in Montpelier, said the police rarely get a call about smoking issues. He said there was one situation at the bus stop where a person called about secondhand smoke and felt threatened, but smoking in public areas is not a crime and they were unable to assist in this situation.
The law leaves the people on the street to resolve the issue themselves without police assistance, which means there is not a lot that police can do to intervene. It is up to the shop owners to deal with the smoking issue themselves. Eric has experienced only a couple of aggressive communications with local shop owners to ask him to leave. He said, “I am always happy to switch locations if somebody asked me to move, but there’s no point in starting the conversation by yelling.”
While Eric’s smoking may be technically legal, business owners are allowed to ask someone to stop smoking if it negatively affecting their business. Nora Kennedy runs a small gelato shop on State Street in Montpelier, going on its 7th year. She has encountered numerous occasions where people have smoked right outside her store during the summer. She could close the door and but it’s too hot in the store during the summer and people enjoy having the door open for ease of entry.
Kennedy has a simple approach to the situation: “Basically just talking to them in a respectful way simply explaining that their secondhand smoke is entering through the open door and causing the shop to smell like smoke,” she said. “I will then ask if they wouldn’t mind just moving a few feet down so it doesn’t blow into the shop.”
Kennedy said people react to her method very calmly. Both parties agree that just being kind and upfront is the best approach to what can be a highly charged and sensitive subject.
Not every shop owner feels so casual about dealing with smoking outside their shop. Hayden Durkee owns Downtown Tees on Main Street. His shop is right next door to Charlie O’s, the local bar and a place where many smokers gather. “It’s not so much the smoking that bothers me, it’s the people who hang around the open door and leave their cigarette butts laying around,” Durkee says. “One guy even puts out his cigar on my clothes hangers. It’s disrespectful.”