Smoke-free laws in outdoor areas, such as parks, recreational facilities, beaches, and patios, have proliferated throughout the U.S. Many nonsmokers – especially children – who are exposed to outdoor tobacco smoke suffer immediate symptoms including breathing difficulties, eye irritation, headaches, nausea, and asthma attacks. Several recent studies have assessed the toxic health risks from exposure to secondhand outdoor tobacco smoke.

Outdoor smoke-free laws are typically enacted by city councils, county boards of commissioners, and local boards of health, which exercise their common authority to regulate smoking on public property. Often these laws are extensions of, or amendments to, indoor smoke-free policies. Some of these policies are based on nuisance law, and advocates in states such as California and South Carolina are collaborating with environmental groups to help pass them. Also, a growing number of hospital and school administrators, and other employers are adopting smoke-free campus policies, which extend to all outside grounds, such as parking lots, and property, whether owned, leased or rented. Many of these campus-wide smoke-free policies include business vehicles.


Legal Issues

A thorny issue in many smoke-free ordinances, and the subject of several legal challenges, has been the definition of “indoor” vs. “outdoor” spaces. Although on the face of it, the distinction between “indoor” and “outdoor” would seem obvious, many jurisdictions have interpreted indoor spaces differently, resulting in definitions that range from enclosed, to totally enclosed, to structurally enclosed, to partially or substantially enclosed, to areas where there is a roof and more than half of the perimeter is covered by walls or other barriers to the movement of outside air, to areas where there is a roof and forty (40) percent or more of its perimeter is closed in by walls or other coverings of any material, whether permanent or temporary. Confusion about the meaning of such terms has resulted in some claims that laws are unconstitutionally vague. These controversies simply highlight the importance of clear definitions in any smoke-free law or policy.

Another argument often raised is that outdoor smoking creates a public nuisance, both because of the health hazard of secondhand smoke and the toxic pervasiveness of cigarette butts, which constitute the most common form of plastic litter on beaches, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Not only are the filters and remnants of tobacco in cigarette butts dangerous to children and wildlife, but smoldering butts and matches tossed onto the ground cause hundreds of fires each year. Some outdoor smoke-free laws in recent years are based on nuisance law, and advocates in states such as California and South Carolina are collaborating with environmental groups to help pass them.

Select Legislation

  • Smoke-free Outdoor Areas Checklist, including model ordinances and voluntary policies regulating smoking in variety of outdoor venues (ChangeLab Solutions).
  • Portland, Maine ordinance prohibiting smoking within 20 feet of city-owned or maintained beaches, playgrounds and athletic facilities, except in specifically designated areas.

Select Litigation

Few outdoor smoke-free laws have been legally challenged.

  • New Jersey Hospitality Industry Coalition for Fairness v. State of New Jersey, Civil Action No. 06-CV-1025 (D.N.J. 2006) (upholding New Jersey Smoke-free Air Act, which was challenged on constitutional grounds, including vagueness. Plaintiffs argued that the lack of a definition of “structurally enclosed locations” could lead to inconsistencies, such as the Act covering a fenced-in outdoor patio but not an unfenced outdoor patio. The court held the language was sufficiently specific and understandable.)
  • Melinda Birke v. Oakwood Worldwide, 169 Cal. App. 4th 1546 (2009) (ruling that a seven-year-old girl has standing in her public nuisance suit against her apartment complex over secondhand smoke in outdoor common areas)

Select Research

Key Resources

  • Tobacco-Free Youth Recreation:  Directory of Minnesota’s tobacco-free parks, zoos, fairgrounds, and other recreation areas.
  • California’s Clean Air Project. Website of material on outside smoking policies, including information on outdoor dining, beaches, entryways, and parks.
  • Maps of Smoke-free Outdoor Areas. Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. U.S. maps of smoke-free outdoor areas, including beaches, outdoor dining areas, parks, zoos, sports stadiums and arenas. ANR’s website includes an outdoor dining resource section.
  • Tobacco-Free Parks: For a Healthy Community. Policy implementation resources including sample policies and ordinance language used in Minnesota that covers smoke-free parks and recreation areas, fairgrounds, rodeos and outdoor events.
  • Smoke-free Hospital Campus Toolkit. University of Arkansas. Compilation of resource material on smoke-free and tobacco-free hospital campuses around the U.S.
  • Smoke-free Outdoor Resources. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids website. Includes a Resource Guide for Smoking and Nonsmoking Policies at Major U.S. Professional and Intercollegiate Sports Stadiums, Arena and Race Tracks, and many resources for smoke-free college and university campuses.