Cooper: Public smoking initiative is off to a polite start

Cooper: Public smoking initiative is off to a polite start

October 14th, 2015 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

An initiative by 11 Hamilton County mayors would ask people to consider not smoking in parks and public areas.

Photo by Sue Ogrocki

For many of us, the declaration of cigarette smoking as illegal wouldn't be too rash.

It's an expensive habit with unquestioned health hazards. It makes your breath stink, your house smell, your clothes reek and your fingers yellow.

The secondhand and thirdhand effects are nearly as bad and potentially far more reaching.

So a campaign against smoking in public, as Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and 10 other Hamilton County mayors launched Monday, would seem appropriate.

"Tobacco is the No. 1 cause of death that is preventable in the county," the mayor said. "Ten times as many U.S. citizens have died [from] cigarette smoke than have died in all of the wars the U.S. has fought."

But just exactly what does smoking in public mean? It's one thing, after all, to request there be no smoking in public facilities and another to say smoking in the general public would be forbidden.

For now, say county officials, parks and recreation facilities will be the targets.

"The thrust of the initiative," said Tom Bodkin, spokesman for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, "is that we're asking the smoking public to not smoke in parks and around other people, particularly children, those with health complications and nonsmokers."

In other words, it's an ask, not a demand. The signs that will be installed at parks and other public spaces in the 10 Hamilton County municipalities will say: "Thank You For Not Smoking."

Money for the initiative, stressed Coppinger, Bodkin and Bill Ulmer, director of community services for the health department, is from the national settlement of a lawsuit against four major tobacco companies. No taxpayer money is involved.

None of the officials could properly estimate the cost of the initiative, but the county is in the second year of a three-year agreement in which it receives $285,000 per year in settlement money.

The initiative, which also will include a billboard campaign, is the largest expenditure of the money to date, Ulmer said. Other expenditures, he said, have gone to a three-prong effort of attempting to get pregnant women to reduce smoking, to reduce second- and thirdhand exposure to smoking by young people and others with weakened health systems, and to reduce the initiation to tobacco use by children.

Programs paid for by the settlement money are "a great opportunity to make inroads in all three of those areas," he said.

However, for the county and municipalities to ban smoking in parks and other public spaces would require action by the Tennessee General Assembly.

Coppinger said the health department asked him to talk to the county legislative delegation about possible legislation that would allow Hamilton County commissions and councils the local option of forbidding smoking in their public spaces. Since the initiative only launched Monday, neither the mayor nor health department officials have talked to members of the legislature.

"Anything is possible at this point," Ulmer said.

But what may be wrapped up in such a request is whether legislators who weren't keen to give local governmental bodies the ability to ban guns from parks and public places would sanction it for a different sort of health hazard — tobacco products, which also likely would include e-cigarettes.

Coppinger, for one, thought they could.

"One's totally removed from the other," he said. "They each would have to stand on their own merit."

If such legislation was to pass, down the road, Bodkin said, smoking could be forbidden on government properties, public schools and at public events.

"The major impediment is that local government does not have legal enforcement," he said. "We can't write someone a ticket for smoking in the park."

For now, the mayors' initiative intentionally is only a polite request for what is expected to be "a long-term, ongoing cultural shift to improve the health of Hamilton County," Bodkin said.

"We want to keep it very positive," he said. "We're not going to try to get people to quit. We're aware that's a choice they make. What we're saying is they're endangering those around them. We're not shaming them or telling them they're bad people. That's a negative approach, and it doesn't do anything. We're just trying to protect the health of the people around these [smokers] who make their choice."

Since the initiative is only at the ask stage, we commend its goals and its parameters and will be delighted to breathe fresher air in more places. If it ever gets to the stage where smoking is forbidden in public areas, another look may be necessary to be sure the rights of the many do not obliterate the rights of the few.

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