Five years after repealing a law that prevented counties and municipalities from creating local ordinances to ban smoking, legislators have proposed a bill to limit the municipalities ability to create such laws.
By Rose Hoban
A bill that would roll back laws restricting smoking in public spaces made progress Tuesday in a Senate committee on a vote that some in the room found problematic.
Senate Bill 703 would eliminate municipalities’ ability to restrict smoking in public spaces such as parks, sidewalks and beaches, prohibiting cities and counties from enacting any anti-smoking laws that are more stringent than state laws.
It would also prohibit community colleges from creating smoke- or tobacco-free campuses.
“If you’re walking down a sidewalk, you ought to be able to consume a tobacco product,” said Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wilson), who sponsored the bill. “If you’re in a park outdoors, you ought to be able to consume a tobacco product. If you’re on a windy beach in coastal Carolina, you ought to be able to consume a tobacco product.
“I just find it ridiculous that we can’t be outdoors and have somewhere for people who choose to smoke, smoke.
“Our state has a great smoke-free law,” said Pam Seamans, head of the N.C. Alliance for Health. “But state law doesn’t say a word about outdoor spaces, and [this law] will exclude and exempt that issue from being dealt with at the local level.”
When asked about the bill, former Gaston County state Rep. Wil Neumann sighed. Neumann was the Republican sponsor of the state’s smoking-restriction bill in 2007.
“It’s a health care issue, plain and simple; that’s the main argument I’ve used and always used,” Neumann said. “It’s been a national debate now – our health costs are just getting higher and higher, and it’s just one thing that’s part of your health.”
“We really should leave it up to local governments to make those decisions,” he said.
State versus local
“I think it’s important for the consuming public to have some sense of uniformity,” Newton argued. “If you come from out of town and you go out to the beach, and you’re a smoker, you might not realize that some cities have it illegal, and they’re going to turn you into a criminal because you smoke outside on a breezy beach.”
Others on the committee objected to the bill.
Many towns hold outdoor family-friendly events, said Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount), and her concern was that under the proposed law no restrictions could be made on where smoking would be allowed.
Newton responded that if smoke were to pose a problem, parents could move their children to another area.
“If you’re at a free public event, where you’re free to move around, not in assigned seats, I just think that you ought to be able to consume a tobacco product,” he said.
But most of the lawmakers in the room, including Newton’s fellow Republicans, expressed their misgivings. Many said the heads of their local community colleges had been in touch to object to the bill.
Fifty-six of the state’s 58 community colleges have instituted restrictions on tobacco use.
“Many of the community colleges have the designated spaces,” Seamans said, adding, though, that 33 of the state’s community colleges have banned smoking altogether.
“I received a letter from my community college saying that they didn’t like this bill because they like being able to regulate smoking outside of the buildings,” said Sen. Austin Allran (R-Hickory). “They have a policy that they think is working and that they like.”
“Are there any scientific-evidence studies that show that outside smoke has caused any harm to anyone?” asked Sen. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort).
No staff members from the Department of Health and Human Services rose to comment.
Committee chair Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville) called for a voice vote, and declared the bill passed. He did not call for a show of hands, as is allowed with close votes; it’s the choice of the chairman whether to do so or not.
Local leaders react
Durham County Public Health Director Gayle Harris said there’s plenty of evidence that second-hand smoke, even outside, is harmful.
Durham has restricted smoking on county property, including bus stops, parks and sidewalks outside government buildings and hospitals.
“When you talk about improving health outcomes in the community, lowering the costs of chronic illnesses, it just makes sense,” Harris said.
She pointed out that after the state implemented a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, the rate of heart attack victims coming into local emergency departments declined by 21 percent.
“It’s not just a bunch of hooey,” Harris said. “Blood vessels start to constrict, and other changes start in your body, immediately, when you’re exposed to second-hand smoke. The surgeon general has determined that there’s no safe level of second-hand smoke.”
Melva Fager Okun of N.C. Prevention Partners said that every hospital in North Carolina is tobacco-free: “No hospital has walked away from that policy.”
She also said that no community college boards have complained about the smoke-free policies, and have voluntarily enacted the bans.
After the meeting, Newton declined a request for comment on the bill.
Cover photo courtesy machechyp, flickr creative commons