Stricter smoking laws urged in Durham

Staff writerNovember 25, 2011 

Durham County's health department wants to toughen restrictions on smoking in public places.

Its proposed revision to the existing 1993 ordinance extends smoking bans to bus stops and the Durham Station terminal, sidewalks, city athletic fields and playgrounds, among other areas.

"Anything the city or county owns," said Health Director Gayle Harris. Harris made the case for the stricter prohibitions to a group of county commissioners and City Council members last week. Nationwide, Harris said, smoking costs $200 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity. Any exposure to tobacco smoke is harmful, she said.

"Smoke-free laws," she said, "have a huge impact on the health status of our community."

Harris went straight to the point, but the commissioners and council members' ensuing discussion demonstrated that a rule straightforward in intent can have a lot of vagaries in fact. For instance, the proposed provision banning smoking from certain sidewalks:

Mayor Bill Bell: "Nobody owns the streets. ... Who owns the sidewalks?"

Further conversation established that the ordinance is legally sound in covering any sidewalk "owned, leased or occupied" by the city or county, and any sidewalk that "abuts" grounds of the city, county, a hospital or Durham Tech.

Well, then, What about the sidewalk on a smoker's private property that abuts public grounds?

Assistant County Attorney Bryan Wardell: "We have to use sort of trial and error on some of these things."

So, how does one know which sidewalks are smoke-free and which are not?

Wardell: Now we're talking about signs. ... posted on sidewalks at intervals so as to reasonably inform the public of the prohibition."

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow: "We don't want a sign proliferation. ... Think of the cost. We're going to have to pay to put up all these signs."

Bell: "Does it meet our sign ordinance? I'm not being facetious, does it meet our sign ordinance?"

Harris assured them that signs would be legal and that money is available to cover the $80,000 she estimated it would cost to implement the ordinance.

County commissioners deferred action on the ordinance proposal until they get formal comments from the city. Whether to adopt the revised ordinance is a county decision, but Harris said the Health Department wants the City Council "to be on board." A decision could be made in December. Violators would face a maximum $50 fine, but the ordinance specifies that the charge is an infraction that may not be prosecuted as a misdemeanor and carry no court costs.

Wardell: "The purpose of the ordinance is primarily education and not having real punitive effect."

Toward that end, the new rules would only take effect after a three-month campaign to encourage smokers to quit and to explain the new rules to the public.

The health department would have some explaining to do. For example, the ordinance prohibits smoking within 150 feet of a public athletic field or playground. Harris: "We don't want to take in the whole park. ... just the area where kids would most likely (be)."

Reckhow: "We're going to have a situation where... we have to start getting into fine print. ... I think it's confusing."

Parking lots and decks, though, could be the most confusing of all.

Wardell: "What if I'm parked in a county parking lot but I'm sitting in a private car.... Yes, you can smoke in your private car. Next question, What if I have the windows down? The answer is, We just don't know."

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