Enforcing the Smoking Ban

Last week, Chapelboro's Elizabeth Friend took a look into how Orange County agencies are (not) enforcing the countywide smoking ban (PDF) enacted by the Orange County Board of Health last October. I think this piece raises a few concerns worth discussion. For context, the ban officially took effect on January 1, 2013, but enforcement measures were not scheduled to begin until a few weeks ago on July 1.

I was happy to see the county enact a smoking ban back in October. This policy decision to promote better public health for all of Orange County's citizens is one that should be applauded -- I just wish the enforcement efforts were worthy of applause, too.

Sadly, though, we haven't seen the health department or county or local law enforcement agencies take any steps to actively enforce the smoking ban despite initial plans to provide for public education about the ban from January to July, with enforcement beginning on July 1. The News & Observer specifically reported last November:

Health officials already are talking with police and sheriff’s officials about how the law would be enforced, [Orange County health department spokeswoman Stacy Shelp] said. Smokers will be warned during the first six months, but after July 1, they could face a $25 fine.

Not only did I see no efforts to educate citizens about the smoking ban during that six-month period, but now it seems that law enforcement officials will not be enforcing the ban, and health department officials are only just beginning their education efforts. From Elizabeth Friend's Chapelboro piece:

We are not going to take an active role in enforcing that,” says Sergeant Bryan Walker, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department. “That would all be down to the Orange County Department of Health.”

...

Shelp says the response team visited Franklin Street last week and plans to move into Carrboro by the end of this week.

...

[U]ltimately, Shelp says enforcement of the ban will come down to concerned citizens.

Emphasis above is mine. I'd like to know why the plan for enforcement has changed, first of all, and second of all, what practical use does a smoking ban have if there is no enforcement for its measures? Why are we enacting public policies in the interest of public health if we're not going to take any efforts to actively improve the public health of our communities? Why should it really be up to "concerned citizens" to enforce the law rather than enjoying our county's public spaces without worry?

I frequent Franklin Street and downtown Chapel Hill regularly, and I continue to see people smoking freely without any concern -- and probably without any knowledge that smoking in public places is illegal in Orange County. The new signs that have gone up in certain locations in downtown Chapel Hill (below) aren't going to help change that, either, if you ask me.

The signs, as you can see from the picture, don't say anything about a smoking ban. They could easily be mistaken for a type of public art that perhaps is just reminding folks to take a minute and relax to appreciate their day. "Breathe" says nothing about our county's effort to improve public health and the air we breathe in our daily activities.

The sign does include a QR code that I assume links to a website with information about the smoking ban. However, I sincerely doubt many people will ever scan this QR code, and I worry that a QR code isn't going to reach many of the populations that smoke the most. These signs, while they may be nice additions of public art to downtown, will not be effective in decreasing smoking rates in our county.

Quite frankly, I don't understand why the health department didn't simply stick with what people recognize: No smoking signs with the iconic emblem denoting "no smoking." For example, the sign below is featured in our Chapel Hill parks and greenways, and makes it quite clear that you shouldn't be smoking in these areas:

Another thing I've noticed is that there is no signage at bus stops in downtown, where I personally have seen the most violations of the smoking ordinance. The "breathe" signs appear to have been placed in other areas, but not at bus stops, which seems to me to be an area of great concern where we should be attempting to reduce secondhand smoke the most.

The Orange County Board of Health enacted a policy in the name of public health, but a policy is only as good as its effectiveness. Without any active enforcement or clear signage that smoking is illegal in Orange County, this policy cannot succeed. I hope the health department and our law enforcement agencies revisit their decision not to actively enforce our smoking ban. These agencies should make the right choice to promote better public health. They should create real, positive change for our community through their actions, not simply pass ineffective laws destined to be forgotten.

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The smoking ban is publicized and enforced within each of the municipalities, including the signs they wanted to post and the location. Chapel Hill chose the Breathe signs; I'm told Carrboro selected a sign with a more direct message but I haven't seen one yet. I walked from my office at the west end of Franklin down to Columbia St. last week and saw 1 of the Breathe signs at the bus stop in front of Caribou. I asked a couple of people waiting for the bus if they knew what the sign meant and they didn't have a clue (one was smoking at the time). I've also walked from Abbey Court (or whatever the new name is) to the west end of Franklin and haven't seen a single sign, even though there are 5 bus stops along the way. However, I have seen fewer smokers on the sidewalks so I do think the word is getting out. I personally asked the Health Department to make sure and conduct an info session for the IFC and the resale shop that's directly across the street from their Carrboro offices since a lot of their customers are the ones who are frequently smoking on the sidewalks when I walk back and forth to work. 

I used to use the downtown bus stops on Franklin and Columbia Street, but now I walk to the previous stop so that I don't have to deal with the nasty environment at what I think must be Chapel Hill's three most-used off campus bus stops.This really is kind of ridiculous. In addition to not targeting places that both need it most and could impact the most people (ie: bus stops) thay also somehow managed to avoid using one of the single most recognizable symbols in the world to communicate a simple message: no smoking!

If you haven't read the humorous yet telling Daily Tar Heel article about the effectiveness of public education efforts around the smoking ban, well, you should.

 

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