Tobacco ban eyed in East Ridge

Tobacco ban eyed in East Ridge

May 29th, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble.

Photo by Miranda Harple

POLL: Should cities be able to ban tobacco use on their property?

During the down time of their long shifts in the East Ridge fire hall, plenty of firefighters dip and chew tobacco to take the edge off.

Spectators watching extra innings at Camp Jordan's fields may light up cigarettes.

Defendants waiting to hear verdicts in City Court often step outside for a brief tobacco fix.

And City Council meeting regular Frances Pope usually will take a quick smoke break after another harried agenda session.

"It just calms me down a little," she said Friday.

But a proposed tobacco ban could snuff out all cigarettes -- and snuff itself -- on East Ridge city property and make the town one of the first in Tennessee to adopt such an ordinance.

City Manager Tim Gobble has drawn up two ordinances. One would limit tobacco to designated areas; the other would ban it from all city property -- including City Hall, fire and police buildings, and all of Camp Jordan and other public parks.

More than 600 U.S. cities have banned smoking in public parks, according to an April list from Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a California-based nonprofit. The only Tennessee town on the list is Johnson City.

"Tennessee is much more far behind the country on the rest of this issue," said Bronson Frick, associate director of the nonsmokers' rights group.

The Tennessee Non-Smoker Protection Act of 2007 also banned smoking in most enclosed public places.

State law doesn't allow cities to enact tobacco regulations, but a city does have the right to regulate use of its property, City Attorney John Anderson said.

hot topic

A growing number of cities in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina are adopting such ordinances, Frick said.

"Sometimes it's concern around keeping the park clean, or about secondhand smoke around ballfields. It's questioning the role of tobacco in a greenspace that's dedicated to kids, to exercising and healthy living. What kind of role does tobacco have there?"

Gobble said a ban could curb litter, reduce second-hand smoke, give the city a "cleaner" image, and, it's hoped, reduce employees' health insurance claims.

But Pope said the proposal goes too far.

"You cannot legislate healthy lifestyle," she said. "I know it offends some people. I know there are health issues. Is it a bad habit? Absolutely, but so is overeating, or an addiction to caffeine. ... To have an open park tobacco-free just seems a little extreme to me. It's kind of like Big Brother."

Advocates for smokers' rights agree.

"It's a government that's stigmatizing smokers," said Audrey Silk, founder of the New York-based Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment.

"To use the force of law to have segments of society to bend to your will while it's a legal activity is unacceptable," Silk said. "We're way beyond going 'too far.' How are you going to enforce that?"

East Ridge council members, poised to pass the ban last Thursday, tripped up over that very question: Are police bound to enforce the ordinance? Who will be in charge of citing errant city employees?

"How am I going to police a guy out on the lawnmower in a 275-acre park?" asked Stump Martin, director of parks and recreation. "I think we laughed about it [at the meeting] because there's no one on that council who wants to have to call a cop to come serve on an employee. I think they'd like to do something, but they don't know yet what they can do."

Police and firefighters are some of the heaviest tobacco-users, Public Safety Chief Eddie Phillips said.

"The station's like their second home," he explained, saying many who work the daylong shifts use chew and dip.

"Those guys get enough smoke from fighting fires," shot back Councilman Darwin Branam, who supports a total ban.

"I'm concerned that some of these guys may be addicted," Phillips said. "I think there needs to be a grace period to encourage them to quit if they need to."

Branam later proposed the council pass the ban but delay enforcing it until October.

The plan is likely to come up again at the June council meeting.

Martin said some of his workers have told him they'd much rather quit tobacco than their jobs if a ban is passed.

"One of my employees says she'll just get in her car and drive around the parking lot every time she needs a smoke," Martin said.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.