Smoke-free St. John — V.I. Poised To Ban Public Smoking

Smokers used to lighting up anywhere on St. John will need to break their habits after the governor’s likely approval of the Virgin Islands Smokefree Act.

Members of the 28th Legislature proposed the Bill (No. 28-0191) banning smoking within and 20 feet from the entrances of fully- or partially-enclosed areas of public spaces and places of employment in December. It passed through the legislature on April 15 and it is expected to receive Governor John deJongh’s backing in the near future.

The Bill, proposed as the Virgin Islands Smokefree Act, aims to create smokefree environments in and around an array of public areas spanning from covered open-air bars and beach pavilions to outdoor service lines and public transportation shelters.

While cities and countries around the world have enforced non-smoking laws in public areas — including the neighboring British Virgin Islands which approved smoke-free regulations in November 2006 — the act has garnered mixed reviews from those who live and work on St. John.

“I think it is a great idea,” said Moe Chabuz, owner of Skinny Legs. “I can’t wait for it to be implemented.”

The landmark bar and grill in Coral Bay has its share of smoking patrons, but Chabuz said he has seen that number decrease over the years. After witnessing former customers and friends die of smoking-related causes, Chabuz said he is not too concerned with whether the smoking prohibition will affect his business.

“I think it is worth it,” he said. “I am not really worried about it impacting business.”

Others are opposed to the way the act defines enclosed areas — “as all space between a floor or flooring and ceiling or any form of roofing whether or not enclosed on all sides by permanent or temporary walls or windows…” — and say it could negatively impact business on St. John where open-air bars and restaurants are the norm.

“I think it could impact our business, especially from the hotel side of things,” said Stephanie King, manager of The Inn at Tamarind Court.

King said a large percentage of Tamarind’s bar regulars and European guests are smokers who are currently allowed to smoke outside of their hotel rooms and in the courtyard’s open-air bar.

King is also concerned the act might encourage people to smoke on streets and sidewalks where ashtrays and proper disposal areas are not readily available like they are in bars and restaurants.

“I am opposed to the act the way it is written,” she said. “I agree with banning smoking in enclosed areas with no open air, but when you are in open areas with no walls, I don’t understand what the issue is.”

Barbie Barry, owner of Sun Dog Cafe and Gecko Gazebo, believes the new laws may be tough to enforce on St. John because of its difficult-to-define indoor/outdoor spaces such as the shared area between her covered bar and open-air restaurant in Mongoose Junction.

Though Barry said she supports the law due to its obvious health benefits, she thinks enforcing it would be easier on the island if each bar and restaurant were assessed individually.

“Besides being a restaurant owner, I am a health teacher at Gifft Hill, and of course I don’t want people to smoke because it is not a healthy thing,” said Barry. “But I definitely think it will have an impact on our business and I think it will be very confusing at first.”

“To make it simpler, if they want to enforce this rule, maybe they should visit each restaurant and bar and look at the space to determine an area where your patrons would be allowed to smoke,” she said.

The smoke-free act requires proprietors to post no smoking signs, remove matches, cigarettes and ashtrays, and to ask individuals they observe smoking in a prohibited area to refrain immediately.

An individual who smokes in a prohibited area where a no smoking sign is posted, or a proprietor who fails to take required measures to prevent smoking, could be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to fines.

Bonny Corbeil, St. John liaison to Senator Louis Patrick Hill, one of the senators who proposed the bill, said she and the senate president support any law that promotes a healthier Virgin Islands.

“I have never been a smoker, but I do know it is incredibly toxic and there is a whole list of reasons why people shouldn’t smoke that is now supported by scientific facts,” Corbeil said. “I think anything we do that directs people into taking self responsibility for their choices and the way they impact others is a positive thing for the Virgin Islands.”

Dr. Elizabeth Barot, a staff physician at Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center, said she has been asking senators for smoke-free laws before they were ever considered. 
“It’s a wonderful thing and I hope they pass it,” she said. “This is a good thing — any smoke you don’t inhale is a good thing.”

Barot said second-hand smoke can be worse for people, especially asthmatics and children, because smoke people indirectly inhale can affect their lungs.

“I think passing this act is good all around — good for the environment, for people, for the lungs, and especially for kids,” she said. “This could positively impact the heath of the people who don’t inhale the smoke of others who are smoking.”