Citing concerns about “overreach”and practicality, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners last week snuffed a proposed blanket smoking ban in county-operated parks.
During a discussion of a new policy that would have prohibited smoking and vaping on all county property, the commissioners said no to the stricter rules on the grounds that they went too far and were unenforceable.
Their resistance was bipartisan. And, thus, so was their hazy judgment.
The commissioners did ask for a revised plan that extends current smoking restrictions to vaping. But the broader policy was the more effective one, and it would have better served the interests of the public.
The idea had been proposed by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services as a means to build on previous restrictions on the use of tobacco products in government facilities. Those earlier regulations, enacted in 2009, banned smoking in buildings that are owned or leased by local governments in the county. The restriction also applied to smoking while inside vehicles owned or leased by local governments. It came in the wake of a state law that had banned smoking in restaurants. And, like that law, the latest proposal is based on science.
As health officials pointed out in their proposal, secondhand smoke is a health hazard outdoors as well as in. In fact, it can affect people as far as 30 feet away, health officials said.
A Stanford University study of smoking at sidewalk cafés, on park benches and at other outdoor locations found that an individual sitting downwind of a smoker is likely to breathe in “substantial levels of contaminated air.”
That’s why the state law that banned smoking in restaurants was welcome and overdue — if glaringly incomplete. (That law still allows smoking in other outside dining areas, which not only spoils the dining experience for nearby nonsmokers, but jeopardizes their health.)
In making the case for the proposal, county health officials also noted the impact of smoking on children. According to a report from the U.S. surgeon general, 5.6 million children are likely to die from smoking-related illnesses if the current rate of smoking among young adults in America continues.
Then there is the litter that accompanies smoking in parks and on greenways. Many smokers seem oblivious to the messes they leave behind.
As for the argument that such regulations would have been unenforceable, the commissioners drew that assumption before asking governments that already have similar policies, including Durham and Orange counties and the cities of Boone, Burlington, Chapel Hill and Durham.
Rules like these have never been about deploying the Smoking Police in aggressive sweeps of parks and golf courses. They are about helping to establish new community norms and expectations. Would some people still smoke in parks if such policies were enacted here? Probably. But not as many.
In fairness, at least the commissioners are receptive to adding e-cigarettes to the already-existing smoking bans. Like cigarettes, vaping also releases toxins and nicotine into the air. And the more we know about e-cigarettes, the more dangerous they appear.
But the commissioners’ knee-jerk resistance to raising the bar on public safety seems curious and even contradictory. Democrat Kay Cashion called the new rules overreach after noting that she is allergic to cigarette smoke.
A fellow Democrat, Carolyn Coleman, defended the role of government in improving people’s lives. But then said she has no problem with people smoking in parks as long as it’s not in other people’s faces (which, again, ignores the science).
The commissioners’ chairman, Alan Branson, cited his childhood in a tobacco field and his former habit of chewing tobacco. “We were born and raised, in this particular area, on tobacco and textiles,” he said. “But it’s a new day.”
Exactly. If only he and his fellow commissioners could truly see that through all the smoke.