The state General Assembly passed a smoke free law in 2009 that banned smoking in all public bars and restaurants in North Carolina. If an establishment wants to accommodate smokers, they must provide an outside area for smokers to use. The law took effect on January 2, 2010.
State legislators were pressed to pass the law after research indicated that secondhand smoke has been proven to cause cancer, heart disease, and asthma attacks in both smokers and nonsmokers. The law sought to eliminate this problem for non-smoking citizens.
Now it looks as if Macon County’s Board of Commissioners may expand the law even further. At their regular scheduled meeting on March 13, board members heard from Macon County students, Zee Keezer and Kristy Sheldon, about banning smoking at recreational parks in Macon County. Although board members seem poised to pass an ordinance banning smoking at county parks, they decided to hold off on taking a vote so county attorney Chester Jones can review the language of the ordinance and ensure it is not too vague.
Dawn Wilde Burgess, the community health promotion supervisor at Macon County Public Health, spoke before the board at Tuesday’s meeting and advocated for a local smoking ban at Macon County parks. Burgess also brought three letters of support from the Macon County Public Health Department, Macon County Parks and Recreation, and the Highlands Board of Commissioners.
Burgess spoke on behalf of TRU, Tobacco Reality Unfiltered, a North Carolina health and wellness initiative that aims to end smoking among the state’s youth.
“In talking about parks, we realize we are talking about outdoor air. If someone is smoking, this also effects non-smokers. In addition to smoke being a health risk there is also a danger to children, ingesting cigarette butts or spit tobacco, or the issue of litter. Even more importantly is the message we are sending to our children. No one wants children to smoke, so we need to set good examples for them about using tobacco products,” said Burgess.
Burgess quoted a report released by the U.S. Surgeon General, which stated that children identify with peers they see as social leaders. The report also said youth are vulnerable to social and environmental influences to use tobacco, a finding that led Burgess and her colleagues to urge board members to pass an ordinance that would ban smoking in public recreational parks in the county.
Moreover, the 2010 law that banned smoking in restaurants and bars enables local governments to strengthen their ordinances against tobacco use, according to Burgess. She noted that a proposed ordinance would be consistent with the policy of tobacco free schools and hospitals, public facilities that already adhere to smoking bans.
Burgess and the county’s public health department are pushing the issue, and their organization is equipped with a $12,000 grant they must spend by May 31, or the money reverts back to the state. Burgess wants to use the grant to support their initiative to ban smoking at parks within the county’s jurisdiction, and most of the money would be used for signage purposes. The money came from the Affordable Care Act, or President Obama’s healthcare law.
Chester Jones told board members that there “were a few questions he wanted to look into first” before commissioners adopted the ordinance. Jones said an effective date for the law must be set carefully. Jones did admit that there was statutory authority giving local governments the authority to regulate smoking on public grounds, but he has reservations about regulating smokeless tobacco. “I need to look into that. There may very well be satisfactory grounds under the policing power to regulate smokeless tobacco, but I haven’t had a chance to look into that,” said Jones.
A public hearing is not a prerequisite for a police power ordinance. Therefore, commissioners can enact or reject the proposed ordinance without holding a public hearing. Commissioner Ronnie Beale expressed his approval for the proposed ordinance. “There is nobody on this board that doesn’t think this is a good idea,” said Beale. Beale said it would be an effective deterrent of tobacco use at public parks, but he does have concerns about enforcement issues.
If the ordinance is approved, the current language calls for a up to $50 fine for citizens who violate the ordinance. Commissioners expressed concern about the reality of enforcing the fine. “We certainly do not want our police authorities spending time policing the park for people who smoke,” said Beale. “I support the ordinance, we just need to look at how to go about it.”
“80 percent of the population does not use tobacco products and the 20 percent that do, we perceive that if there was a sign, the majority would adhere to that,” she said. “Signage is the key. We perceive that this is going to be enforced like any other policy of the county,” noted Burgess. She added that this policy would reinforce their initiative at making non-smoking the social norm.
The board will review the ordinance and is expected to take it up the issue during their April board meeting.