NEWPORT, R.I. — The Cliff Walk, the 3½-mile footpath that affords stunning, sumptuous views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, is easily one of the most beautiful vistas in New England, a treasure for all, and all are welcome.
Well, make that some.
Smokers are welcome only if they don’t light up. You can’t smoke Newports on Newport’s Cliff Walk. You can’t smoke Marlboros or Camels or Lucky Strikes, either. Or cigars, for that matter. Or pipes.
At the foot of all those big houses that once had nannies, the nanny state has moved in.
It’s not just the Cliff Walk. Newport has banned smoking on its beaches, too — just as smoking is now out of bounds at some of the Cape’s best.
Of course, such bans are, practically speaking, just about unenforceable. There are no squads of antismoking cops snooping around Easton’s Beach or the Cliff Walk, armed with truncheons and citation books. But, then, maybe it’s just a matter of time.
The signs informing sunbathers and walkers of the new prohibition haven’t gone up yet, and a cursory stroll of some of the beaches and the Cliff Walk suggested few people know that you can’t light up there anymore.
The smoking ban was not a decision taken lightly. The Newport City Council debated this at some length, which is no surprise given how important tourism is to the local economy. There was some talk of accommodation. How cool would it be to create a leper colony for smokers on the deliciously named Rejects Beach and Hazards Beach?
In the spirit of compromise, a couple of councilors suggested creating designated smoking areas at the beaches. There was a lot of back and forth before that compromise was dropped and an outright prohibition was adopted.
Only one member of the Newport City Council, Marco Camacho, voted against the smoking ban. Camacho is not a habitual smoker, though he likes a good cigar once in a while. But he was a soldier, an officer, and says the values he swore to uphold in the Army are the ones he’s defending now.
“I take a libertarian position when it comes to personal liberties,” Camacho told me. “You have the right to make decisions for yourself, even if they’re bad for you. In a free and democratic society, we protect the rights of minorities. And right now, smokers are a minority. We’re talking about maybe 20 percent of the population. The rhetoric used against smokers, if used against people who are overweight, would be considered bullying.”
Camacho doesn’t buy the argument that second-hand smoke on the Cliff Walk or the beaches poses a serious health threat.
“I understand that second-hand smoke is bad,” he said. “But outside, there is a safe distance: 6½ feet. An outright ban ignores that. I think we’re trying to legislate manners. People shouldn’t blow their smoke in your space.”
Camacho’s empathy for smokers was stoked when he flew to his family’s native Portugal with his father, a smoker. He saw how hard it was for his father to be cooped up without a smoke for so long. His father has tried to kick the habit.
“It’s an addiction, but it’s a legal addiction,” he said. “Who are they hurting if no one is around them? Just themselves. You can’t smoke a cigar with your wedding party?”
Some of his colleagues voted for the ban even while admitting it is unenforceable. He winces at that.
“I don’t like passing laws that are not enforceable or those that we refuse to enforce,” Camacho said. “I don’t think we should be in the business of legislating aspirations.”
Much of the justification for the smoking prohibition was to reduce littering. Again, Camacho doesn’t buy it.
“If that was the issue,” he says, “we could just put more trash receptacles up.”
That’s exactly the reaction I got from Natasha Spratt and Catriona McEleney when I met them on the Cliff Walk the other day. Spratt gave up cigarettes four years ago, but she doesn’t begrudge her friends having a smoke. McEleney still smokes, but it didn’t occur to her to light up while she and Spratt were working up a sweat on the Cliff Walk. It sort of defeats the purpose.
“Even if I did, I wouldn’t throw a cigarette butt on the ground,” she said. “I’d hold it until I could throw it away properly. But, now that you mention it, there is no place to throw them.”
That was painfully evident at the foot of the Chanler, a luxury boutique hotel at one end of the Cliff Walk, on an imposing bluff overlooking Easton’s Beach. There were more cigarette butts in the immediate proximity of the Chanler, a very classy place, than at any other spot along the Cliff Walk when I walked it.
Which, again, raises the question, couldn’t all of this be resolved with more trash receptacles?
Camacho said the instinctive urge to ban anything related to smoking often clouds over more rational, realistic responses.
“We understand the issue of littering,” he said. “We have an ordinance in place. It needs to be enforced.”
So instead of enforcing a law that exists, we get a new law. That even its supporters admit can’t or won’t be enforced.
Sounds good to me.
As for those who argue that smokers get cancer and cost us all because they disproportionately end up in the hospital, Camacho says using that logic, the Newport City Council should make the application of sunscreen mandatory on the city’s beaches and Cliff Walk.
“The biggest threat of cancer at the beach or on the Cliff Walk isn’t second-hand smoke,” he said. “It’s the sun.”
Pssst, Marco. I love you, bro, but don’t give them any ideas.