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Will smokers soon be seen huddling en masse outside Lancaster County restaurants, theaters and other public buildings as they light up their next cigarette?
It’s very possible, especially if County Council decides to approve a proposed ordinance that would prohibit smoking in enclosed public places and enclosed areas of work.
The proposal and its ramifications were a hot topic at council’s meeting on Monday, June 11.
Presented by members of the county’s Health and Wellness Commission, including Donna Parsons and Chairwoman Vicki Hinson, the proposal lists several reasons for the enforcement, such as possible dangers of secondhand smoke and smoke-filled workplaces.
With a packet of statistics and findings by her side, Parsons told council that “there is no safe level of secondhand smoke.”
“This ordinance is designed to protect workers and the public from secondhand smoke. This is not a ban, but we’re asking the public not to smoke in these areas,” Parsons said.
She said the commission spent a considerable amount of time researching smoking statistics, reviewing similar ordinances in surrounding counties and listening to various speakers.
“This was not done in a short period of time,” Parsons said.
Places where smoking could become prohibited include restaurants, educational facilities, libraries, polling places, performance areas and public areas inside businesses, among many others. Exceptions to the smoking ban would include private residences, retail tobacco stores and certain bars and private clubs.
County Council Chairwoman Kathy Sistare said some residents worry the ordinance could infringe on their personal rights, though Parsons said smoking is not a “protected right.”
“(Smoking) is an action, a personal choice kind of thing,” Parsons said. “You can smoke on your own land, home or vehicle, but this is designed to prevent smoking in public areas where there’s no filtering system. Their right to smoke is something that infringes on other people’s airspace.”
Is it enforceable?
Penalties spelled out in the ordinance include fines between $10 and $25 for people caught smoking in prohibited areas.
There would also be fines for owners, managers or operators of public spaces or places of business who fail to enforce the ordinance. For example, if a restaurant manager does not act to prevent customers from smoking, the manager could be fined $100 for a first violation and a maximum of $200 for any subsequent violation. Repeated violations could result in suspending or revoking occupancy permits.
Councilman Larry McCullough asked Parsons and Hinson how the fines would be enforced.
Parsons said the first level of enforcement begins with business owners and managers who will be required to uphold the smoking regulation. There would also be designated areas, mostly outside, where people would be allowed to smoke.
“It will be up to them to put signage up that says ‘no smoking,’” Parsons said. “If people don’t follow it, they can call the sheriff’s office for help.”
Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile and Lancaster Police Chief Harlean Howard also spoke to council about the issue of enforcement.
“If someone won’t put it (a cigarette) out and they don’t leave, then it becomes a trespass issue,” Faile said.
Based on what she’s seen in other counties, Howard doesn’t expect either agency will be called upon regularly to enforce the ordinance. She said the public will most likely accept and follow the new rules.
“Very rarely do we have problems in public places,” Howard said.
Councilman Jack Estridge took offense to asking residents for tax dollars when they buy cigarettes, but not allowing them to smoke wherever they want. He also doubted the ordinance is enforceable.
“I just can’t see telling somebody you can buy a product and pay taxes on it, but you can’t use it,” Estridge said.
Councilman Larry Honeycutt countered there are already places where it’s inappropriate to smoke.
“Will you light up in church?” Honeycutt said. “We’re not telling people not to smoke. There will be designated areas to smoke.”
Addressing concerns that enforcement of the ordinance could also harm local businesses, Hinson and Parsons presented council with statistics stating there would be no significant economic impact.
Councilman Rudy Carter agreed and urged people to look at what happened when Rock Hill enacted a similar ordinance.
“I remember one guy in Rock Hill who said it would be devastating to his business,” Carter said. “They checked back in with him two weeks later and his business had seen a 30 percent increase.”
Near the end of the discussion, council members Charlene McGriff, Estridge and Cotton Cole debated the issue of personal smoking rights.
“I have a right to sit in a restaurant and not smell smoke,” McGriff said.
Despite quitting smoking about 35 years ago, Estridge said he still supports residents’ rights to smoke.
“I wouldn’t smoke a pack for $1 million, but I think people have the right to smoke. Most people I know won’t blow smoke in people’s face,” Estridge said.
Cole said he owns multiple restaurants and does not allow smoking at any of them, though he believes it should be left up to the individual restaurants.
“I sure wouldn’t want County Council telling me if I can smoke in a restaurant,” Cole said. “I don’t believe in the smoking, but I don’t believe it’s the government’s place to tell you what to do and not to do.”
Cole also worried about placing a burden on law enforcement.
“These two police officers (Faile and Howard) have more important crimes to worry about than enforcing someone smoking a blankety-blank cigarette,” Cole said.
Parsons reiterated Howard’s earlier comments that the public will probably fall in line with the ordinance.
“I think most people will comply and accept the change,” Parsons said. “I don’t think we’ll have to have the ‘cigarette police.’”
Despite the heated debate, no vote was taken. First reading will be heard at council’s June 25 meeting. The ordinance requires three readings before it’s approved.